"There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too," Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night. It's a maxim that South Dakotan extremists would be wise to remember.
South Dakota's speaker of the house has shelved a notorious bill creating a legal defense for assassinating abortion-providers. Meanwhile, another bill, that would mandate a 72-hour waiting period and counseling at a so-called crisis pregnancy center, moves forward in the state House.
"Clearly the [assassination] bill as it's currently written is a very bad idea," said a spokesman for Gov. Dennis Daugaard. That wasn't the position of the governor's fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, who advanced the very same bill by a 9-to-3 party-line vote last week.
"South Dakota continues to be on the front lines in the fight to secure reproductive health care for women," said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood affiliate for the region. Of the waiting-period bill, Stoesz observed, "Crisis pregnancy centers are not legitimate medical facilities. They do not offer comprehensive health-care services, meet medical standards, or provide accurate medical information to their clients."
"I'm all for women seeking additional information, but mandating patients to hear a lecture from ideological organizations with no medical background simply goes too far," Democratic state Rep. Angie Buhl told me. "HB 1217 [aka the waiting-period bill] presents serious privacy concerns for women seeking reproductive health care."
The fact that the assassination bill could be taken seriously in the first place, and that another anti-woman bill is presently pending, sheds an unflattering light on the extremist-driven politics in the Rushmore State.
In 2006, the state hosted another high-profile struggle over reproductive rights. Then, a cadre of characters out of the Handmaid's Tale passed legislation banning abortion outright. The ban included no exceptions for rape, incest, or any dangerous health effects women might face as a result of pregnancy. A grassroots uprising referred the law to South Dakota voters, who struck it down by 12 points.
In 2008, extremists came back with an appeal directly to voters. They placed another abortion ban on the ballot, this time including the exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of women overlooked in their last effort. I managed communications for the campaign opposing government intervention in women's medical decisions and saw first-hand the vitriole and misguided ideology guiding South Dakota's selectively pro-government contingent.
Leslee Unruh is among the foremost opponents of trusting women to make their own medical decisions in South Dakota. She co-founded the Alpha Center, a crisis pregnancy center that relies on tax dollars to steer women away from abortions. The Alpha Center, which supports the counseling mandate presently before the state House, would likely reap significant revenue from its passage. In her long career seeking government intervention into women's medical decisions, Unruh has demonstrated a remarkable penchant for whacky rants. Unruh's 2007 performance on Fox News is among her best exhibitions of insulation from reason and includes some of her greatest hits, like, "Lies, lies, lies, lies, more lies," and my all-time favorite interview sign-off, "I want more babies. More babies. We love babies."
If you're just returning from that video clip, you may be asking yourself, "Did she just say that birth control use renders women permanently infertile?" Did I mention that fear and deception are their favorite tactics?
There's also my old friend, Steve Hickey. Pastor Hickey is the leader of Church at the Gate, a fortress-like complex on the outskirts of Sioux Falls, from which he writes his acerbic blog Voices Carry. My history with Hickey includes him publicly confusing me for a Nazi guard at Auschwitz and his baseless allegations that I was somehow involved in voter fraud -- a preposterous set of smoke and mirrors raised just before Election Day 2008. Hickey once told The Washington Post that South Dakota was chosen by God to challenge Roe v. Wade. He also rejoiced in the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a reproductive-health doctor gunned down in his church.
"Surely these zealots do not stand for the bulk of South Dakotans," you might sigh. No they don't, fortunately, but they do represent a substantial, vociferous minority. Reasonable people were able to protect women, families, and public health from their assaults in 2006, 2008, and again this week, by calling on the majority of South Dakotans who trust women and families. These close calls should still raise eyebrows, though. Unruh's camp earned around 44 percent of the vote for banning abortion in both 2006 and 2008. As for Hickey, he was recently elected as one of seven representatives speaking for the people of Sioux Falls -- South Dakota's largest city -- in the state's capital. As a representative, Hickey co-sponsored both the assassination bill and that mandating a waiting period and counseling for women considering an abortion for any reason. During his campaign for the state house, Hickey received praise from the state's most widely read newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, for his "level-headedness."
At any rate, it should be no surprise that further attempts are being made to limit access to abortion in South Dakota.
"It shakes me. This is a game-changer that just crosses the line," said Dr. Marv Buehner, one of the only doctors who provides complete reproductive health care in the state. I caught up with him as he was on his way to deliver a patient's baby in Rapid City. "There are a lot of nuts out there with guns who could see this as a green light to pursue a 'Second Amendment remedy.'"
"No doctor would provide women the care they need if that bill had passed," Dr. Buehner added, referring to the assassination bill.
That's exactly the point. As Pema Levy suggests, such laws are specifically aimed at creating confusion and fear. We've seen deception and fearmongering before from those who would mislead South Dakotans into endangering women and families. And we'll see it again.