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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 4
Christmas 2006 - Epiphany 2007

Setback in South Dakota

by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

Notice that that headline doesn’t say “defeat”. Yes, the abortion ban passed by the Legislature in South Dakota was overturned by the voters. But that only caused a delay in the inevitable showdown at the Supreme Court.

The results of the elections last month did not reflect whether the abortion/embryonic research/cloning/homosexual marriage movement had more resolve and support than the pro-life movement. It did reveal how powerfully driven their message was by astronomical funding, celebrity endorsement and -- most importantly -- a complicit media partnering in carrying the message to the masses.

It also proved that negative campaigning works. We have a soundbite mentality, and a short attention span. We like our message catchy, punchy, and it helps if it grabs the emotions. That’s why boldface lies can fill catchy ads and people will be gripped by them. When they’re repeated enough -- and forcefully enough -- people believe them, and their thinking is formed by this information, false though it is.

So What Happened?
This is the common thinking on the result in South Dakota on Referred Law 6, the abortion ban:

Polls before the vote showed the ban would have been approved easily had it included exceptions for rape or incest, though pro-life advocates don’t support aborting babies for those reasons.

But there was an exception for rape and incest.

The exception that was in the abortion ban was an easy one to obfuscate and deny, because it wasn’t a blanket nine-month-long approval of abortion for a woman who claimed rape or incest. It was a narrowly defined, broadly protective exception clause that absolutely did give those victims ability to prevent pregnancy from rape or incest. But fine points are easily overlooked and certainly easily distorted, and that’s what happened.

Some well-informed people have raised questions about it that even some pro-life media haven’t answered yet. So let’s see what we know.

First of all, the “Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Law”, otherwise known as the “abortion ban” in South Dakota (Referred Law 6) did -- as I just stated -- have a rape and incest exception. Period. It’s in HB 1215, section 3. I’ve always said that it was the most narrowly worded, finely crafted exception clause ever written. That’s what proved to be its weakness, and why Planned Parenthood took it to a referendum instead of to court, because they knew they could convince the good, compassionate people of South Dakota that the law did not have an exception for rape and incest. It was just too obscure for the pro-life forces to work with in trying to persuade the public that women were, indeed, protected in that way.

I received a letter from Kate, who said that even knowing where to look for the exception and hearing it explained left her confused. “It’s the language, difficult to understand for the average Joe … the writers of the bill set this up to fail.”

By default, Kate, not through any intention. Their intention was to make the “morning-after”, or Plan B, emergency contraception available to victims of rape and incest for roughly a week after the incident. That way, one of three things would happen: no fertilization would have occurred in the first place; the emergency contraception would prevent fertilization from occurring; or in rare instance, a fertilized egg would not be able to implant, and the woman would never know that any life was conceived and therefore not suffer the traumatic effects of knowing she ended the life of her own child. The drafters of the bill found that to be the most acceptable possible scenario that protects the woman.

The Achilles Heel
So there were plenty of people deceived before the elections. But for people who at least understand that the law in South Dakota did have such an exception, there has been confusion about the moral permissibility of even the tightest wording, the finest tuning, of anything that would allow even the remotest possibility of taking one human life. That’s a good issue to raise, and this is the best time, because this legislation is going to move forward, and a lot of other states are writing up something similar.

I have received some very good questions from well-informed readers and listeners of my reports on radio. Jerry, particularly, probes for some answers that a lot of folks are probably wondering, and it’s an excellent inquiry.

“Explaining the South Dakota law’s ‘rape and incest’ clause, you outlined the three results of taking the Plan B pill”, Jerry writes. “Setting aside the debate over voting for the ‘lesser of evils’, the wisdom of allowing abortion in any form in order to limit it incrementally, or accepting the canard about the near statistical insignificance of those children conceived through rape or incest (and the requisite questions about the relative dignity of those human persons), I was hoping that you could clarify the ‘Plan B’ option. Is this a morally acceptable position, or merely the nearest thing to an acceptable position? If the former, please direct me to Church documents that may support that position.”

Good questions. No, it is never morally acceptable to take a human life at any stage and cannot be presented as such. The good people of South Dakota who drafted HB 1215, which became the “Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Law”, agonized over the protection of all human life under all circumstances and the passage of that law with 33 years of Roe and Doe’s abortion on demand. What they crafted seemed to be the best possible legislation at this time.

And this is the time to get familiar with Evangelium vitae, the “Gospel of Life” encyclical written by Pope John Paul II and released on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1995. It covers just about everything we’re facing in the culture of life vs. culture of death battle, issue by issue. JPII anticipated this gnarly problem of trying to legislate protection of life back into a country whose laws permit taking it in all sorts of ways.

In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it”.

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations -- particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation -- there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects. (EV no. 73.2)

Once these state laws are finally enacted, they can be fine-tuned even further to close loopholes and render more perfect law. We are nearly there, as South Dakota proved. Evangelium vitae is the best possible guide to get there, and to change the hearts and minds necessary to make the law more perfect.

Where to Go From Here
Despite its loss, the abortion ban has already prompted other states to consider similar measures, and state legislatures in even more states may follow South Dakota’s lead next year.

Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life issued a statement just after the election, addressed to pro-life people who worked so hard for passage of the major initiatives in the election that protect life, at least two of which went down to a narrow defeat:

The vote on the South Dakota ban does not mean what abortion supporters want it to mean. The American people continue to oppose all but a small fraction of the abortions that are permitted. The circumstances in which most of the American public supports the legality of abortion are the circumstances of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s life or physical health -- circumstances which account for a few percentage points of the total numbers of abortion. This, in fact, explains why there was not majority support at the ballot box for the South Dakota abortion ban. Pro-abortion forces, bringing most of their money in from outside of the state, bargained on being able to get the people to reject a “no rape exception policy”, and hence miss the forest for the trees. The people of South Dakota don’t support the Planned Parenthood policy of abortion on demand, and neither does the rest of America.

What happened in South Dakota is a new dynamic, and Planned Parenthood may sound victorious right now, but they know that after 33 years of abortion on demand, this turned it all around. A story in South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper the day after the election reflected this. The rather long headline read: “South Dakota voters on Tuesday firmly rejected a law banning nearly all abortions, but supporters of the measure vowed to continue pushing to further restrict abortion in the state”. Yes, the Argus Leader has used pro-abortion language all along.

So, though this article started off with the triumphant news that “South Dakota voters … firmly rejected a law banning nearly all abortions”, it also included the reality of what abortion proponents are up against, ultimately:

Campaign manager Leslee Unruh said the Vote Yes for Life on Six campaign succeeded in changing the rhetoric in the anti-abortion movement by emphasizing that “abortion hurts women”. She said she expects similar campaigns against abortion to take place in states including West Virginia and Texas.

In South Dakota, the human life protection law will go through the process of passage again, only it will be strengthened by this setback. It’s the very pro-life legislature that assigned the Task Force to Study Abortion, which delivered a stunning 71-page report of the most extensive research and evidence of the trauma women suffer from abortion ever done since Roe. They will write a better, clearer and stronger exception clause into the very good law that passed this year, and pro-life Governor Mike Rounds will sign it into law again. This time, it will be airtight, and my educated guess is that Planned Parenthood will challenge it in court and put it on the path to the Supreme Court.

“They’re never going to win, and we’re never going to quit”, Unruh said in that Argus Leader piece. “Women are being heard all over this nation and it started here in South Dakota.”

And it will continue there.

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, was a reporter for Time magazine for many years. Sheila was host of “The Right Questions” on Relevant Radio and “Issues and Answers” news show. She lives in Chicago with her husband; they have two sons, one is a seminarian and the other a college student. Contact Sheila at

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