News Articles

Pro-life women in S.D. legislature destroying abortion myths

PIERRE, S.D. (BP)–Slowly but surely, female legislators in South Dakota are shattering the myth that says male politicians are the only ones who support abortion restrictions.

Of the 16 women in the South Dakota House and Senate, 11 voted in February for a bill that would ban all abortions in the state, unless it’s necessary to save the mother’s life. Signed into law Feb. 6 by Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, the effort is a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The law would go into effect July 1, although it likely will be struck down before then in federal court. Supporters hope the high court takes the case and overturns Roe.

“I just turned 40 this year, and I think it’s extremely important that women my age speak out and say that abortion hurts women,” South Dakota state Rep. Keri K. Weems, a Republican who represents part of Sioux Falls and who voted for the bill, told Baptist Press. “We want to not only protect women but also to protect babies.”

The bill crossed party lines, receiving the support of the majority of Democratic women (four out of five voted for it) and Republican women (seven of 11 supported it). The Senate sponsor was Julie Bartling, a Democrat.

“I think the time has come that [abortion] needs to be brought before the Supreme Court — simply because 33 years have passed [since Roe],” Bartling told Baptist Press. “This legislative body has taken the bull by the horns for the last few years.”

Polls show that men and women in the U.S. have similar attitudes about abortion. An aggregate of Gallup abortion polls from 2001-2003 showed that 45 percent of men and 43 percent of women considered themselves “pro-life.” By contrast, 47 percent of men and 48 percent of women called themselves “pro-choice.”

But when asked detailed questions, women become even more pro-life. A poll of 3,300 American women released in 2003 by the pro-choice Center for the Advancement of Women showed that 51 percent favored banning abortion in the overwhelming majority of cases. Seventeen percent said abortion should never be available, while 34 percent said it should be available only in cases of rape, incest and saving the mother’s life.

Nevertheless, the belief that men should not have a say on abortion laws — and that women don’t support such laws — still persists. When President Bush signed the ban on partial-birth abortion in 2003, he was surrounded by nine male politicians — a photo-op that made even his supporters cringe. Upon seeing a photo of the signing, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote: “It’s a single-sex class photo of men making laws governing something they will never have: a womb.” She later noted: “[W]hen President Clinton vetoed a similar bill, he was surrounded by women.”

After South Dakota’s legislature passed its abortion ban, columnist Jeffrey Page of The Record newspaper in New Jersey asserted: “As far as anyone knows, Mike Rounds, the governor of South Dakota, has never been pregnant and never in need of an abortion. Despite this, Rounds is prepared to sign into law the most restrictive antiabortion law in the United States.” The column’s headline screamed: “South Dakota declares war on women.”

But South Dakota’s female legislators are trying to change America’s perceptions.

“I don’t think life is [only] a man’s or a woman’s issue, because it takes both to create life,” Weems said.

The state’s female legislators formed a pro-life and pro-family caucus, called Women for Women, which is comprised of about 65 percent of the women in the legislature and has both Republican and Democratic members. One of the caucus’ primary goals this session was passage of the abortion ban.

“In my early 20s I bought into the line of the pro-choice movement. I was influenced by that” Sen. Elizabeth Kraus, a Republican and a member of the caucus, told BP. “I said, ‘I don’t think I would ever choose abortion for myself, but who am I to say what another person should choose?'”

Kraus, though, became pro-life over time.

“When Roe vs. Wade passed, we didn’t know that life began at conception, but our science has moved far beyond that,” she said. “… I think it’s obvious that it begins at conception. Even many pro-choice people will tell you that.”

The abortion ban bill was based on the findings of a 17-member state task force that studied the impact abortion has had on America since 1973. Its members included legislators — Kraus was among them — and community leaders. The task force received testimony from nearly 2,000 women who had had abortions. Among the findings in its 71-page report, the task force said that science has proven life begins at conception. The report further said that abortion harms women psychologically, emotionally and physically.

“The Task Force finds that it is simply unrealistic to expect that a pregnant mother is capable of being involved in the termination of the life of her own child without risk of suffering significant psychological trauma and distress,” the report said. “To do so is beyond the normal, natural, and healthy capability of a woman whose natural instincts are to protect and nurture her child.”

During testimony for the abortion ban, one abortion counselor told a legislative committee that she had counseled a woman who could no longer use a vacuum cleaner because it reminded her of the machine used during her abortion.

Said Kraus: “Many times it takes eight years or more before the woman is really impacted, because she’s in denial. It’s pushed to the back of her mind and she’s not dealing with it. Then some event later triggers a severe reaction.”

Weems, who has three children, said she was pro-choice before she became pregnant.

“We’re just really trying to stop the perception that abortion is good for women,” she said. “It’s not. It hurts women. Life begins at conception.”

Even though South Dakota is considered a pro-life state, Kraus said she has received “a lot of negative feedback” from liberal interest groups. The legislature even received coat hangers in the mail.

“It’s a brutal issue, but we just believe so strongly that we’re willing to take the heat,” Kraus said.

“It’s so similar to Dred Scott,” she added, referring to the 1857 Supreme Court decision that ruled blacks had no rights under the Constitution.

Kraus, who serves as majority whip, disagrees with pro-lifers who say the ban is being pushed too soon. Of the Supreme Court’s nine members, five are on record as supporting Roe. Kraus, though, noted that Justice John Paul Stevens, who supports Roe, is 85.

“We understand that it will be two or three years before it would come before the Supreme Court,” she said. “So, why not now? Every year we wait, a million more die and many women are harmed.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust