Split by Abortion The Front Lines of the Religious War in God's Own Country

South Dakota has passed the most restrictive abortion law in the United States. But much more is at stake. The rural state has become only the most recent front line in an ongoing religious war in the US.

Phillips Avenue in Sioux Falls, South Dakota -- located in the heart of the flat Midwestern prairie -- is a sleepy thoroughfare. There are a few businesses along the street, a couple of restaurants, and a souvenir shop which struggles to attract customers.

But last Thursday, this dreary provincial boulevard became the dividing line separating two irreconcilable camps in the city -- and it became the most recent front line in an ongoing war that bisects the entire nation. For about an hour, opposing groups of demonstrators swore at one another across the street, launching a new round in an old dispute that has long since expanded into a cultural battle -- a bitter fight that has raged for decades between conservatives and liberals, devout Christians and women's rights groups.

Last Monday, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a Republican, approved a radical new law that outlaws abortion under virtually all circumstances. Even rape and incest victims are forbidden from getting abortions under the new law. By signing the bill into law, Rounds threw down the gauntlet not just to the majority of Americans -- two-thirds of whom are pro-choice -- but also to the United States Supreme Court, which established the constitutional right to abortion more than 30 years ago in the landmark decision "Roe vs. Wade". A mouse has roared, as one of the most sparsely populated states in the US has put itself on a collision course with prevailing law.

The battle on Phillips Avenue last Thursday, though, wasn't just about the protection of unborn life. For many on the religious right, it's part of a larger struggle for supremacy in "God's own country." Catholic priest Father James Morgan traveled to Sioux Falls to support the few dozen Christian protestors who had gathered there to do battle with the evil pro-choicers.

"Crimes like slavery and the Holocaust"

But evil, it seems, is in the majority these days. Even in South Dakota, where about 300 protestors, mainly young women wearing pink T-shirts, are vocally defending the right to abortion. The signs they're carrying convey their message loud and clear: "My body -- my choice" and "Save Roe."

Father Morgan smiles mildly, seemingly confident of victory. "We're writing history here," he says. In 25 years, he adds, Americans will liken abortion "to the greatest crimes of mankind, crimes like slavery and the Holocaust." Then he turns to offer comfort to five fellow Christians, women wearing mourning and carrying signs that read: "I regret my abortion."

The abortion debate has long since moved on from being a controversy over what's more important: unborn life (pro-life) or a woman's right to choose (pro-choice). The larger debate now centers around how liberal or how conservative Americans want their future society to be. The burning issues dividing America today are the extent to which right-wing fundamentalists should influence public life, the separation of church and state and the relevance of religious morals in a nominally secular country.

And because the opponents of abortion see the US courts as the primary backers of the hated secular system, South Dakota's anti-abortion law is ultimately aimed at the Supreme Court, where it will undoubtedly come up for review. The Supreme Court is where the future course of US society will be decided, and it is US President George W. Bush's declared goal to pull the court into the conservative camp. With two new Bush appointees already seated on the Supreme Court, a third may soon be on the way; 85-year-old justice John Paul Stevens is likely soon to step down from the bench. The appointment of a conservative as Stevens' successor could guarantee a conservative court majority for years to come.

Rural South Dakota has always played a major role in the battle over abortion. For the sparsely populated state, with its 780,000 inhabitants, a consistent pro-life policy has become almost as much of a trademark as the portraits of past presidents carved into the face of Mt. Rushmore.

"We thought we had won"

Thelma Underberg, director of the regional pro-choice movement, has been fighting to uphold abortion rights for more than 40 years. For Underberg, professional and economic equal opportunity and a woman's right to choose are inextricably linked. When the Supreme Court passed Roe vs. Wade in 1973, enabling women to obtain abortions legally anywhere in America, Underberg celebrated. "We thought we had won," she says.

But now, sitting in her windowless office, she says she doesn't understand the world anymore. The 74-year-old has three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and she is active in her church. Yet while she outwardly resembles her opponents in the pro-life camp, she refuses to speak with them. "You might as well be talking to a wall," she says.

The climate began to deteriorate in South Dakota sometime in the mid-1990s, says Underberg. The churches, led by the Catholic Church, began politicizing the abortion issue and endorsing candidates who were willing to oppose abortion. Apparently the strategy worked. South Dakota's state legislature ratified the new law with a majority of 50 to 18 votes. "The dividing lines didn't run between the parties or the sexes," says Democratic state legislator Elaine Roberts. In the end, religious faith was the deciding factor -- and the crevice which has been slowly wedging American society apart for several years came into sharp focus in South Dakota. 

Now virtually everything has become politicized. A seemingly harmless cake-baking contest is quickly transformed into a pro-choice fundraiser. The other side, meanwhile, attacks a pro-choice woman as a "lesbian activist from Minnesota" just because she plans to give a speech in Sioux Falls. And the local newspaper, the Argus Leader, is already so intimidated that it refuses to run editorials on the issue -- the most important in state politics at the moment.

Lobbying for an abortion ban

Robert Regier, 35, is one of the most successful strategists in the religious camp. When he was at college studying constitutional law, he got his girlfriend pregnant and she subsequently had an abortion. For him, his work with the South Dakota Family Council is a kind of atonement for his transgression.

A full-time lobbyist, Regier supported the uncompromising law from day one. He called voters on the phone, sent out 15,000 e-mails, and contacted 400 church congregations to encourage priests and pastors to deliver political sermons. Regier believes the United States has been drifting to the left for decades, and says he is pleased that conservatives are gradually taking a stand for their beliefs. "Let's hope the country finally wakes up," he says. As far as Regier is concerned, the separation of church and state may be something for Europe's heathens, but in America faith should "not be kept artificially separate."

Regier also pleads against allowing any exceptions to an abortion ban. Babies conceived in a rape are no less human than others, he says, and pregnant women who choose not to keep their babies should turn to their churches for help.

The religious war in the Midwest is gradually threatening to become a burden for Bush, himself a born-again Christian. At least five other states in the American Heartland have backed South Dakota's radical approach. But such extreme positions are unlikely to sway a majority of moderate Republican voters in urban areas. States with larger populations, critical in election season, like Pennsylvania and Ohio, could easily revert to Democratic control if the Supreme Court ever decides to overturn its 1973 landmark decision.

Abortion rate on the decline

Two-thirds of Americans are against a tightening of the current liberal laws on abortion. Nevertheless, the abortion rate has consistently declined since the 1980s, even without a ban, and has almost returned to its level in 1973, when Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal.

But any moderate, reasoned approach to the issue has long been shunted aside and the shrill debate in South Dakota isn't likely to change that. While one side prays to God that He lead the courts to a wise decision, the other side waves wire coat hangers -- as a symbol of a possible return to the barbaric abortion practices of the days before Roe vs. Wade. Local physicians, fearing boycotts of their practices, already stopped performing abortions years ago. Instead, doctors from neighboring Minnesota fly in each week to perform abortions in the state's only abortion clinic.

Thelma Underberg has been wearing her pro-choice button far more frequently these days, especially when she goes to church. But hardly anyone dares to seriously confront the outsider. "They gave up on me a long time ago," she says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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