In S. Dakota, abortion's health impact key issue

Published November 3, 2006

(AP) - The rival sides in South Dakota's historic vote on abortion each are claiming their position protects women's health - an old argument on the abortion rights side but a new campaign tactic for anti-abortion advocates that has significantly changed the debate.

At stake is a South Dakota law passed earlier this year that would ban virtually all abortions. Voters will decide Tuesday whether to reject this toughest-in-the-nation ban or uphold it, likely triggering a lawsuit that could lead to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The vote also will serve as a barometer, watched by activists nationwide, gauging the effectiveness of the distinctive pro-ban strategy. Rather than stressing a fetus's right to live or vilifying abortion providers, the Vote Yes For Life campaign has focused on depicting abortion as psychologically harmful to women.

"Support Women's Health," says the campaign website. Its ads feature women detailing their post-abortion despair.

The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, which opposes the abortion ban, leads in the polls but still has found the strategy challenging to counter. It says there is no scientific evidence of pervasive psychological or medical problems among women who had abortions.

"The marketing is ingenious on their part," said Dr. Maria Bell, a Sioux Falls gynecological oncologist who opposes the ban in part because she feels it jeopardizes women's health. It would allow abortions only to save a women's life, with no exceptions for other health factors or cases of rape or incest.

" 'Abortion hurts women' - that's a great slogan, but they don't have the data to back that up," Bell said. "They have a lot of stories, but we don't make public policies on anecdotal evidence."

There are indeed stories _ hundreds of women who had abortions provided them to a South Dakota task force, which concluded that abortion should be banned because it is "destructive of the rights, interests and health of women."

The chief of the pro-ban campaign, Leslee Unruh, talks often of regrets over an abortion she had, and says "the time has passed for any other strategy" by the anti-abortion movement.

She expresses annoyance at anti-abortion militants, some from out-of-state, who use more strident tactics such as harassing women at the state's one abortion clinic. "It can't be someone on my side," she said.

Nationally, groups like Silent No More and Operation Outcry are mobilizing women who had abortions to campaign against abortion rights, often using words like "empowerment" that recall previous feminist campaigns.