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Strange indeed, isn't it, that the state ranking No. 46 in total population would once more be at the center of the nation's attention as Election Day approaches.
Two years ago, the question was whether Republican John Thune could defeat veteran Democrat Tom Daschle for one of South Dakota's U.S. Senate seats. Thune's victory was part of a nationwide pattern in 2004 that left Democrats licking their wounds. (It may also have been part of a pattern that left conservatives in general and Republicans in particular with a disastrous case of overconfidence).
But now, as South Dakota voters head to the polls on Nov. 7-this time for a statewide popular vote on a measure to outlaw abortion-the nation will be watching for a much more critical trend. Elsewhere across the country, individual candidates will mirror Thune's rise and Daschle's fall, both raising and sinking the fortunes of the parties and the political philosophies they represent. But because of what happens in South Dakota on Nov. 7, either pro-lifers or pro-abortionists will emerge on Nov. 8 with important crowing rights that will affect the national argument.
Here's why. Ever since the infamous Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, pro-lifers have argued-and appropriately so-that the court had ignored the right of the people at large to make such important decisions. The term "judicial activism" might be applied to a number of issues, but none more volatile than those spelling out the rights of the unborn. So for a generation now, abortion has been an issue largely fought in the courts-and in the battles to appoint judges to preside in those courts. Only rarely has the issue been placed squarely before the voters.
In a few days, that's what will happen in South Dakota. Fewer than a third of the state's 750,000 people are likely to go to the polls-which means that something like one-fifteenth of 1 percent of the population of the United States will have a drastically outsized impact on a vastly important issue. Half of those people, or one-thirtieth of 1 percent, will win the day.
Pro-lifers are seeking a straightforward declaration by South Dakotans that abortion is something they can do without. And so they are going for a knockout punch. The South Dakota legislature earlier this year passed a bill outlawing abortion but decided to seek validation from voters rather than simply allowing a bench full of arrogant judges somewhere to rule them out of bounds.
The measure being put before the voters is as sweeping a bill as possible, while still highlighting compassion and justice for the victims of sex crimes. Even though statistics suggest that only 1 percent or 2 percent of all abortions follow acts of rape or incest, the South Dakota bill offers a limited time for such victims to consult their doctors and get treatment to prevent conception or implantation.
The risks in the political approach are both big and fateful. A victory by pro-lifers, even by a narrow margin, would be a tough blow to the abortionists' argument that pro-lifers represent only a tiny but noisy part of the population. But a defeat for pro-lifers would arguably be far more devastating for their cause-simply because it would do so much to dull the argument about activist judges.
All of which originally made South Dakota seem like a good place to make the case. The sparse population meant that a media campaign would be affordable. The relative conservatism of a rural state seemed to favor the measure.
But the proposal is by no means assured. With only a few days to go before the vote, polls suggest either side could win. Pro-life activists like Allen and Leslee Unruh of Sioux Falls, who have poured months of their time and tens of thousands of their dollars into the cause, are frustrated by the lethargy of Christians in the state.
Some observers say that the 33 years since Roe have taken their toll, and that a majority of American voters-including Christians-simply don't care anymore. Abortion has become too much a part of their lives, and they're not willing to give it up.
If South Dakotans make that kind of statement on Nov. 7, pro-lifers across the nation may find a rebound very hard.