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South Dakota: Pioneers to the Past
Published on Friday, March 10, 2006
South Dakota: Pioneers to the Past
by Susan Lenfestey

Anyone old enough to remember the good old days of “chastity and virtue”, which many South Dakota lawmakers hark back to, will also remember the good old days of illegal abortions.

If you could scrape together enough money, you could find the name of someone, maybe a doctor, but maybe not, who would agree to meet you in a hotel room or have you come to an office, usually a dark room at the back of a urine-stained hallway. The abortion itself was often primitive, with coiled hoses, saline and other “tools” of the trade.

How you'd gotten pregnant was irrelevant, as you only blamed yourself. It was not unusual to hear tales of forced sex or fraternity “pranks” where several “chaste and virtuous” males would take turns on a passed-out, over-served girl, things that today would be regarded as rape, but then were regarded as our own fault.

There were also young women who were willingly and joyfully engaging in sex, and some got pregnant and some didn't, and some got married and some didn't. We are, after all, highly interested in such things, as the good lord intends for us to be.

Everyone who got pregnant back then handled it differently, but not because they had much of a choice. Money and class made the choice for them, as it will again if South Dakota-style 'wisdom' prevails across the land.

At my college, the scholarship girls disappeared and never returned, except for one brave soul who came back after delivering and giving up her baby, whispers flapping behind her like nuns' robes in a gale.

The middle-class girls rallied their friends to loan them the money, then headed to the nearest city for a terrifying weekend, sometimes accompanied by the now-sullen boy friend who had once promised marriage.

But the rich girls, the ones from Wayzata and Lake Forest and Manhattan's upper east side, they took a four-day weekend on daddy's dime to Sweden or Japan, where they got a safe, legal abortion and were back in class before anyone blinked.

And all of them were comparatively lucky, as they were the ones in college, sailing towards lives shimmering with comfort and privilege. The poorest girls, those nowhere near college, who traded dashed dreams for a few tender moments, or for a proposition they literally couldn't refuse, they tried the most drastic and deadly home-measures to abort, or gave birth to babies they could ill-afford to raise.

So once again the poorest of the poor will be the ones to suffer the most, while the rich will always have choices. If Jenna Bush came home pregnant after a wild night of clubbing, does anyone think that we'd see a little first-family love child toddling around the White House?

Well, as the conservatives like to say, the poor will always be with us. I have one back at them. So will abortion.

Abortion is nasty and to be avoided. So is poverty. And most of all, so is war, even though we have a bazillion dollar budget and the Pentagon to support it.

Here's a deal I'm willing to make with President Bush and his South Dakota ken.

I'll encourage abstinence and work hard to make sure that there are fewer abortions in this world (we're doing that already, but it also takes contraception and education, neither of which appeal to your 'base') if you'll renounce violence and put an end to this barbaric war.

And you'll still have the upper hand. Because you can go to war on false pretenses, but no woman who isn't really pregnant has ever had an abortion.

Susan Lenfestey ( is a Minneapolis writer.


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