When the South Dakota legislature passed a ban on abortion without exceptions for cases of rape and incest, pro-life websites began buzzing with the news that the pendulum may have swung too far--even for the hardcore anti-abortion folks. Eleven states, including Mississippi, are considering similar bans, which go well beyond even the pro-life consensus. The problem is more strategic than moral, according many pro-life leaders. According to the website LifeNews.com—pro-lifers fear that state voters will reject the law in a November referendum sponsored by the pro-choice, grassroots group South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, or that the law, which is a clear violation of Roe v. Wade, will be struck down by the courts. Thus, some are reluctant to put their resources into defending it.
Writing on Alan Keyes's conservative website, renewamerica.us, pro-life columnist Brian Wilson decries the split in the pro-life movement over the South Dakota abortion ban: "We ought to get together now as a united pro-life movement and agree to support bans on abortion that allow for exceptions in the cases of rape and incest," he writes. "With a united front, we will be able to move more quickly. And the sooner the better. An abortion ban that includes exceptions for rape and incest would save over 1 million lives each and every year. Then those of us who don't support abortion in cases of rape and incest can continue that fight."
Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood is pouring resources into South Dakota and ten other states where legislation to criminalize abortion ispending. The group's Stand with States campaign slogan is "prevention, not punishment."
By all accounts, the South Dakota law marks a turning point for a pro-life movement that has made incursions on solidly pro-choice public opinion with a series of small steps--parental notification laws, waiting periods, and the like.
South Dakota casts things in much starker terms. As it becomes clearer that the far right wants all abortions to be treated as a criminal act and incest and rape victims to be forced to carry their pregnancies to term, they part ways with a vast majority of Americans.
The extremism of the South Dakota law throws into relief the difference between policies that strike people as sensible advice (requiring women to wait, look at ultrasounds, consult their parents before getting an abortion) and the true purpose of laws, which impose prison terms and fines and make criminals of people who break them (doctors, teenage rape victims, grandmothers transporting minors across state lines for abortions). This is a useful reminder. The Planned Parenthood slogan "prevention not punishment" drives the point home.
In many ways, both sides of the abortion debate have been courting the middle ground for years. When Planned Parenthood held a prayer breakfast in Washington, DC, on Friday, news sites and, of course, pro-lifers, erupted with criticism of a secular group trying to hide in clerical garb. But the truth is that Planned Parenthood, since its founding, has had a humanitarian and spiritual mission, particularly to poor women, and has always had an active church as well as lay membership.
Too bad the group, which currently runs the only abortion clinic in South Dakota, passed on a headline-making proposal by Cecelia Fire Thunder, a former nurse and the first female president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who said she'd like to circumvent the law by placing a Planned Parenthood clinic on sovereign Sioux nation ground on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Nonetheless, South Dakota brings home the point that the work Planned Parenthood does to give women power over their own lives, promote family planning, and make every child a wanted child, is a noble, humanitarian mission. The same cannot be said of the criminalize-doctors and throw-the-book-at-rape-victims right. That's a message more Americans need to hear.