Wednesday, March 08, 2006

How Did This Happen in South Dakota? Part 2

The vast majority of South Dakotans, of Republicans, of Americans, believe that abortion should be legal. Most do favor restrictions on abortion. But even so, the ban does not represent the wishes of South Dakotans. However, the climate in South Dakota is such that pro-choice people frequently keep their politics to themselves.

I am a transplant from New York, so mine are still the observations of an outsider, even though I've been here for several years. Here is what I've noticed about pro-choice politics in that time (observations of other, perhaps relevant, elements of South Dakota culture are here and here). South Dakotans, please feel free to comment and/or correct me.

The assumption in South Dakota is that everyone else is anti-choice. This is largely because the anti-choice movement is very vocal and very visible while the pro-choice movement is much quieter and less visible, so that what we see when we look around at t-shirts and bumper stickers are anti-choice messages.

It is also because the way that the anti-choice movement casts abortion is difficult to argue with (and this is true nationally). Pictures of aborted fetuses, fake or not, are disturbing for everyone. Sobbing women giving testimonies of regretted abortions make it difficult for women to say publically, "I had an abortion, and it was the best decision I've ever made, and I've never regretted it." The woman who says this fears being regarded as a monster with no maternal instinct or human compassion.

On top of this, although SD contains some very liberal religious folks, such as members of the ELCA and the UCC and the one synagogue in the state, it is generally fairly religiously conservative. Thus, the message that people get in their churches is that abortion is sinful and immoral. Even when the church message is more tolerant of abortion, abortion is still perceived negatively.

Politics in SD are also considerably different than in other parts of the country. South Dakotans as a whole value civility, privacy (ironically!), community, and "Christian values" (though what "Christian values" are will vary: for some, they are social justice values, while for others they are religious right-wing values). They don't like it when a person gets too big for his or her britches (as some feel that Tom Daschle did). And they will bend over backwards to avoid stepping on someone else's toes. In marked contrast to my experiences in New York, where people will quickly tell you if you say something that offends them, in South Dakota, people will avoid charged topics in the first place and will frequently avoid telling you when they are offended.

Pro-choice South Dakotans know that to wear a pro-choice t-shirt or to attend a rally is to invite confrontation. They already see the anti-choice movement as stepping outside the bounds of polite discourse, and they do not want to engage in the confrontation that might ensue. They also do not want to "come out" as pro-choice and risk offending someone else - nor do they want to be vulnerable to attack.

Also, confrontational tactics are likely to backfire. Regardless of how one feels about abortion, most South Dakotans do not appreciate or defend the aggressive tactics of the anti-choice movement. Strong proclamations, especially about personal issues (sexuality, religion, and politics are considered to be personal issues) are generally seen as aggressive, and so pro-choice people are timid about voicing these opinions publically.

All of this means that pro-choice tactics have been quite different here than in other places I have been. First, pro-choice activism is carefully planned so as not to provoke people and alienate those who might otherwise be convinced to fight for choice. This does not mean that pro-choice activism can't be visible, but it does mean that we work hard to be pleasant, cheerful activists with positive messages and to avoid confrontation. We are still angry, of course - but this approach does get us a positive response. Second, until recently, there were very few visible actions or events. Most pro-choice events were fundraisers (some to benefit a private fund to help women pay for abortions), and these events were not well-publicized. The goal of the movement in past years seemed to be simply to maintain the shaky ground we had.

But the most striking difference between the movement here and on the east coast is its face: in South Dakota, the majority of pro-choice activists appear to be women (and some men) over 40. While Planned Parenthood has been instrumental in getting young women involved through its VOX campus chapters, there is still a huge lack of young women in the movement. That is not surprising: SD culture does not encourage young women to own their sexuality. Our sex education in the public schools is laughable, and in the Christian schools, it is worse. People get married at very young ages here; even college-educated women rush to marry shortly after graduation. There is very little honest talk about sexuality, much less about abortion. (Need I add that we have almost no Gender/Women's Studies in this state?) So, many young women do not see abortion as an issue that directly concerns them - nor do they see the choice to have an abortion as one that is open to them.

The past couple of years, however, have begun to make a difference in the face - and the tactics - of the movement in SD. Planned Parenthood has worked to introduce a number of (ultimately failed) bills in the Legislature that emphasize pregnancy prevention. This helps to associate Planned Parenthood with prevention rather than abortion in the minds of the public (it is unfortunate, given Planned Parenthood's decades of work to educate and prevent pregnancy, that the general public still does not understand its mission). Simulaneously, Planned Parenthood has sponsored VOX chapters on at least two campuses in SD, and hopefully that number is growing. VOX members organize their peers to provide political support for reproductive rights, they provide education about contraception and STIs, and they hold events to make pro-choice politics visible as well as to promote dialogue about abortion and relevant issues.

Young women, then, are slowly becoming a strong force within the movement.

It is early to say this, but it seems to me that a defining moment occurred during this legislative session, on February 1, when over 200 women (and men) descended upon the Legislature to demand reproductive rights (I've written about this here). Two hundred people is not a big turnout by some standards, but for Pierre, it was huge. The legislators had never before seen so many people advocating for women's rights, and it made an impact on them. Perhaps more importantly, it made an impact on the advocates themselves. You could feel the political climate change as they realized that they could make a difference, that they could unite and be heard.

More and more, pro-choice people in South Dakota are getting fed up, and as they get angry, they become a little more willing to stand up to the tyranny of the right wing. But this population is not used to collective action, and the question is whether or not these emotions will be enough to sustain us through the hard fight.

(Part 3 to follow.)

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