New hope for South Dakota

As reported by the Daily Kos, a rigorous new poll shows that Measure 11, South Dakota’s latest attempt to ban abortion, might not pass as easily as everyone originally thought.  South Dakota’s initial attempt to ban abortion in 2006 was defeated by 56% to 44%, mainly because the bill included no exceptions for victims of rape and incest, or provisions for the mother’s health.  Now, in 2008, these exceptions have been inserted into the wording of the referendum, but as the Daily Kos points out, these provisions are largely superficial, and offer no real practical exceptions.  The general idea was that as soon as this wording was inserted, the South Dakota abortion ban would pass by a landslide, but thanks to a hard, uphill battle waged mainly by the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, the latest polls show that Measure 11 might be shot down again, just like its 2006 counterpart.  According to the poll, if the vote were today, 44% would vote No, and 42% would vote Yes.  Which is really exciting, encouraging news, although the race is too close for comfort.

Even so, none of this changes the fact that women trying to access reproductive health care in South Dakota face a really tough challenge.  There is only one clinic in South Dakota which performs abortions, and they are done by a rotating staff of doctors who are flown in from neighboring states.  And again, as the Daily Kos has pointed out, the hoops that women in SD have to jump through before actually having the procedure done are incredibly daunting:

The woman must receive state-mandated “counseling.”

The woman must wait at least 24 hours after the state-mandated “counseling” before procedure may be provided.

If the patient is a minor, a parent or guardian of the patient must be notified.

The doctor must offer the woman an opportunity to view a sonogram, and must then record any responses in her permanent medical records.

The doctor must deliver a government-dictated script to women designed to intimidate her and discourage her decision. The mandatory language includes statements of fact which are contrary to all available medical research.

Usually by the time a woman is sitting across from me (a midwife) for her initial prenatal visit, she’s already made up her mind to keep her baby.  But every now and then I come across a woman who’s still conflicted, and we usually have a frank and very difficult discussion about whether she really wants this pregnancy or not, and everything that keeping this pregnancy entails.  This is a hard decision to make in a hospital like mine, sitting across from a provider like me who is resoundingly pro-choice, and is not at all judgemental or discouraging of the woman’s thoughts or decision.  These women are often young, alone, and already scared and intimidated, but if they really don’t feel like they can keep this pregnancy (for whatever reason–and we do talk about the reasons, but only to make sure that she’s thought everything through), I gently refer them to the termination of pregnancy clinic, with compassion and support.  No one is judging them.  Judgement is the LAST thing you should find in your health care provider’s office.

Now, imagine this were South Dakota.  Imagine how much harder it would be to make such a decision if I were legally required to read these women a script containing statements which are medically false and which do nothing but make the woman feel even more intimidated and guilty about her decision.  If I were forced by state regulations to make it very clear that I think abortion is a terrible idea, it would take a very staunch woman indeed to be able to stand up to something like that (and this is not because I’m so terribly persuasive, but only because the power of the white coat is astounding: people automatically trust you a little bit more and believe you’re speaking the truth, just because you’ve got a white coat on.  If you tell them that they need to eat more iron-rich foods because they’re anemic, they generally listen to you.  If you tell them that what they’re doing is wrong, they listen to you too).  And then, to top it off, I’d have to offer these women a sonogram, just so they can see that heart beating some more, and feel even more like a monster for doing what they feel they have to do.  The cruelty of it makes my skin crawl.

In any case, the reproductive rights of the women of South Dakota hang in the balance (and by proxy, the women of the rest of this country too, because if this referendum passes in South Dakota, it’s just opening the door for every other state).  And do not be fooled: the inclusion of exceptions into the wording of the bill in no way changes the fact that this referendum will basically make all abortions in South Dakota illegal, because there is absolutely no practical way to carry out these exceptions, and no doctor willing to test it.  So, what can we do about it?  We can donate money to the South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, and we can…(to put a rather neo-conservative spin on it)…pray.

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