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April 15, 2006

My Trip to South Dakota By Lynn Paltrow

While some national groups are fundraising and announcing plans to go into South Dakota, local grass roots and state based activists are already hard at work, organizing, collecting signatures, building new alliances, and defining the core issues for themselves. I learned this and much more on my recent trip to South Dakota.


As you probably know by now, in March, South Dakota passed a law banning virtually all abortions. Local activists responded by starting a referendum drive. If they collect 16,738 signatures from registered voters, the statute will have to be submitted to the people of the state for a direct vote on November 6, 2006.


I learned that for the local activists collecting signatures, the work they are doing has much more to do with preserving democratic and family values than it does with preserving the right to choose to have an abortion. They understand that the abortion issue is being used to distract attention from core economic and family issues that cross race, religious, and party lines– including the need for a living wage and the fact that so many South Dakota families lack health care coverage.

Somewhere along the line, many national pro-choice activists seem to have given up on real grassroots organizing. The thinking went along these lines: The anti-choice movement has the fundamentalist churches– we can’t compete with that-- so why bother? Our side focused on court challenges and national marches and ad campaigns. But what South Dakota proves is that there are plenty of grass roots religious, women’s health and community based activists who can and have been mobilized to act.

On April 5th I spoke in Sioux Falls to a group from the South Dakota Advocacy Network for Women. Among those attending were religious, community, and Native American leaders including Charon Asetoyer of the Native American Womens Health Education Resource Center. There were lawyers, community board members, progressives and self-identified Conservative Republicans, all gathered to talk about how they planned to challenge South Dakota’s law banning abortion. From there I went to Vermillion, South Dakota where I met with activists from Democracy in Action, a Rapid City based organization that offers a coherent set of goals designed to improve health and education in the state and to achieve economic and racial justice. Many DIA members drove 7 hours to attend a reception for the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families -- the statewide campaign organizing the referendum. (Among those making the road trip from Western South Dakota -- were two grandmothers who have taken on the South Dakota Task force challenging the legitimacy of the report that lead to the abortion-ban legisation-- http://sdakgrandmothersspeak.blogspot.com/

The day continued and I then spoke to a packed house at the University of South Dakota at a lecture sponsored by the American Constitution Society. Held at the Freedom Forum's Al Neuharth Media Center, I addressed the question: “Does SD’s ban on abortion violate the constitutional and human rights of pregnant women?”

My favorite question from the audience was – “What if we win the referendum and the legislature just passes the law again with a rape and incest exception?” There are several answers to that question –but the first and most exciting was the possibility that as a result of the ban, new abortion laws would not be coming up again before the same legislature. In addition to grassroots activism—it seems the law has inspired a whole lot of new people to run for state office. Two of them, Charon Asetoyer and Suzan Nolan, were in the audience that night.

The day did not end there. Following that talk, I joined some of the organizers at a local student hang out. And there, sitting at the counter, were a group of women collecting signatures for the referendum. I even got to see a lovely young blond-haired woman approach them. She said: “I’m pro-life but I think this law is wrong. Where can I sign a petition?” That was April 5th. By April 9th, the LA Times reported that local activists had already collected a third of the signatures they needed.

I hope that the local people canvassing for the remaining signatures will take the time to listen to the people they approach. I hope they will ask each person what his or her family’s greatest needs are? The information they gather will provide good insights into the kinds of policies and laws that could be addressed if the South Dakota legislature were not so obsessed with abortion.

I also hope that when activists from national organizations arrive in South Dakota to help – that they will stop first to listen to the grass roots activists already there. They are the people who know their own state, their own neighbors, and the arguments, ideas, and values that matter the most. This is a grand opportunity to start building a national grassroots movement that starts where it should -- from the ground up.