How the Midwest Was Won: South Dakota Healthy Families’ Winning Message

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How the Midwest Was Won: South Dakota Healthy Families’ Winning Message

Kay Steiger

The South Dakota measure to criminalize abortion was defeated by 10 points. The campaign responsible for challenging the ban used messaging much of the national pro-choice movement might not agree with. How does a state in which most voters identify as pro-life defeat an abortion ban?

This fall, amid furor over the election of Barack Obama to
the presidency and Democrats’ widened majority in Congress, three states
quietly defeated anti-choice ballot measures, California,
Colorado, and South Dakota.

Of these, perhaps South
Dakota is the most perplexing. South Dakota is a state with a small
population and very few cities. Although the state hasn’t been polled on
abortion except for how they might vote on the 2004 and 2008 abortion ban measures,
even pro-choice advocates in the state readily admit that the majority of the
state would self-identify as pro-life. John McCain and Sarah Palin easily won
the state this fall, and an abortion ban with no exceptions passed with vast
majority in both houses of the state legislature and was signed into law by Gov.
Mike Rounds more than two years ago. To the surprise of the pro-choice movement,
the state overturned the ban in a November 2006 referendum by a wide margin.
Exit polls suggested that many voters were uncomfortable with the lack of
exceptions for a woman’s health and life written into the ban. A poll by the
Argus Leader, South Dakota’s largest newspaper, run shortly after the 2006
abortion ban defeat, showed that a vast majority — by a 28-point margin — would
support a ban with exceptions.

So the pro-life movement in South Dakota gave it another shot. They put
an abortion ban with vague exceptions on the ballot this fall and looked forward to
seeing it sail to victory. Less than a month before the election, a poll showed
voters split evenly on the measure, 44-44 percent, and 12 percent were still
undecided. On Election Day, the measure was defeated by 10 points, 54 to 44
percent. So how does a state, in which most voters would probably still identify as pro-life, manage to
defeat abortion bans twice?

This was a question recently
in an article by Denise Ross in The New Republic. Ross concludes that "revisiting the debate over four years and consumed by it
throughout 2006, [the state’s electorate] has just gotten so educated on the
issue that they are now uncomfortable with black-and-white formulations that
bans contain." Indeed, the region’s Planned Parenthood and
the pro-choice coalition South Dakota Healthy Families used language
and messaging very different from national pro-choice groups.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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Sarah Stoesz, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota, and North
Dakota, credits the win to a well-run campaign with
broad grassroots support. But it wasn’t a strategy run only by outside
consultants, with slick advertisements and catch phrases like "My Body, My
Choice" or "Keep
Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries
." In fact, the word "choice" was abandoned by
the coalition fighting the abortion ban in South Dakota altogether. Instead, the
coalition took a
pro-family approach, using the word "baby" where mainstream pro-choice groups
would have used the word "fetus." One Healthy Families ad featured a woman
named Tiffany Campbell, who appeared with her husband and son. In the television ad, Campbell explained
that during her pregnancy they discovered twin-to-twin syndrome, a condition in which one fetus would need to be terminated for the other to survive. Campbell
phrased it this way, "I would have buried two babies." Much of the language in
the ads talked about families making decisions without government interference.

"We were completely ready to and did redraft all of the
usual rhetoric that is used by people on our side," Stoesz said. She noted a
lot of feminists on the national level were upset at a pro-choice campaign that would abandon rhetoric built on for decades, but Stoesz isn’t sorry she
abandoned the rhetoric. "As the head of Planned Parenthood [in the region] I’m
responsible for keeping the sole abortion clinic in South Dakota open and I’m
responsible for making sure there is a strong base of support for women’s
reproductive health in South Dakota," she said. "South
Dakota isn’t Manhattan.
It isn’t San Francisco.
It isn’t even Chicago and it’s not even Minneapolis. It’s so
different. The culture is so different."

The coalition looked to open up a discussion and stay away
from polarizing debates. They wanted to humanize abortion in a way that had
rarely been seen in a campaign. Stoesz talked about how during the campaign in
2006, many national feminist groups criticized their messaging for saying that the ban went "too far" because it did not contain exceptions,
implying that a ban with exceptions would be acceptable. "That made people very
uncomfortable. But we had to start there," Stoesz said. Instead of casting
actors in their ads, they used real South
Dakota women who were willing to share their stories.
"This had started in 2006 spontaneously on its own," Stoesz said. "People began
telling their stories about abortion to one another in South Dakota in a way that doesn’t happen in
any other place in the country. I’m just not aware of any other community, certainly not state, that has engaged in a lengthy and meaningful discussion
about abortion. But that [has] happened in South Dakota now for over two years."

The campaign tapped local women like Campbell to appear in their ads and tried to
get those that might otherwise identify as pro-life to talk with women in their
communities about abortion. Stoesz found that people who were morally opposed
to abortion found that "women and families who choose to have abortions are not
that different from themselves."

Stoesz thinks this is a sign that the pro-choice movement
needs to put aside some of the choice-based language it has been using for
years. "This proves conclusively that it’s time to give up the old rhetoric and
use language that is empathic and that people relate to," she said. "People
don’t like to be bullied. There’s a large portion of people who are morally
uncomfortable with abortion but don’t want to ban it."

Nathan Peterson, director of the South Dakota Healthy
Families campaign since 2006 and lifelong South Dakota
resident, noted that South Dakota,
like many other conservative states with large rural areas, might not fall
neatly along party lines.

"There are certainly large numbers of Democrats in South Dakota that voted
in favor of the abortion ban and, in a similar fashion, large numbers of
Republicans that voted against it. It’s not necessarily tied to a political
party in South Dakota,"
Peterson said. Volunteers who canvassed in the state didn’t simply find that
people were pro- or anti-choice. "When we were training our volunteers and when we
were training our staff we knew that we could knock on five different doors and
find five different points of view on this issue. It wasn’t going to serve us
well to take one particular stance on abortion and try to convince those five
people that they should think the exact same way," he said.

Of course, it helped the campaign that the legislation was
badly written and raised a lot of questions about exactly how much access the
government would get to medical records. Peterson found that it was especially
helpful to focus on these concrete consequences of the legislation.
"The 2008 law in particular, we talked about how section 18 of [the proposed
abortion ban] would have forced doctors to turn over their patients’ complete
medical records to the state department of health," Peterson said. "It would
essentially give the government access to our personal medical information. We
were able to make much more progress in convincing people that, whatever personal
opinion on abortion might be, trying to pass this kind of legislation would
have disastrous consequences." Eventually, by raising the question of state
interference and by offering stories of real women who talked about their decisions,
the campaign seemed to prove to voters that no "health exception" would be sufficient to protect women’s health.

The campaign found support in surprising areas of the state.
"Many would consider the Western portion of South Dakota more conservative. In the Western
half of the state Republicans enjoy a larger registration advantage, for
example," Peterson explained. "[But] We had much more support in the Western
part of the state than in the Eastern part of the state and I think that’s
because some of that libertarian mindset. Whatever an individual’s personal
opinion may be [on abortion] it starts a very bad precedent to start letting
government dictate what medical decisions people can and can’t make."

For now, Healthy Families has committed to staying organized
in the state since supporters of the abortion ban have made statements that
they might try again. The Vote Yes For Life website says, "We shall rise and
fight again." But people in South
Dakota, now after more than four years of intense
discussion and debate over abortion seem tired of it. "Everyone in the
state now wants to work toward reducing unintended pregnancies and improving
education," Peterson said. "They would rather reduce incidences of unintended
pregnancy than rehash the same divisive debate."

Abortion will remain legal in South Dakota. Stoesz and the Healthy
Families coalition were successful in defeating a ban that positioned itself as
a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Perhaps now, instead of rerunning the same old abortion debate, the debate
about comprehensive sex education and increased family planning can begin.

Don’t forget to join Kay Steiger and
others on Rewire, for a live discussion on the future of
reproductive health and rights. Join us and ask your questions!