(WOMENSENEWS)–When the South Dakota Legislature approved the nation’s most sweeping abortion ban in March, Pam Hemmingsen decided to run for office.
“What turned the light on for a run now was the hijacking of our Legislature by the religious right,” says Hemmingsen, a pro-choice Democrat making her first bid for a seat in the state House of Representatives. “We’re focusing in on legislating morality while our women and children are hungry and we don’t have health care. We have the lowest wages for teachers in the entire nation.”
The abortion ban–which includes only an exception to save the life of the woman and would give prison sentences to doctors who provide abortions–has invigorated the midterm election season in South Dakota.
Hemmingsen and 45 other women are running for state offices; all 105 seats in the Legislature are up for a vote on Nov. 7. Women currently make up 16.2 percent of the South Dakota Legislature.
At 42, Hemmingsen says, she’s the last of a generation that recalls fighting for women’s rights and has discerned an age gap in the state’s abortion debate.
If a woman is between ages 18 and 35, Hemmingsen says, she has almost no chance of capturing the votes of women ages 18 to 35. “They’re overwhelmingly pro-life, very conservative,” Hemmingsen says. “They have no conscious memories of what it took to get equality and they don’t understand what it means not to control your reproductive choices.”
While the controversial abortion ban may have spurred many pro-choice female Democrats like Hemmingsen into the political field, many are seizing the chance to talk about bread-and-butter issues in a state of less than a million people that also leads the country in the percentage of women holding two jobs.
Altogether, the state ranks second in the nation–behind North Dakota–in its percentage of multiple jobholders; the median annual income for women is $24,400, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
“Living wage and health care are major issues,” says Theresa Spry, a pro-choice Democrat running for the South Dakota Senate. She has lobbied past legislatures for a living-wage law. “Education is an issue. We have 30,000 children who live in poverty in South Dakota who go to bed hungry every stinkin’ night.”
Spry sees living-wage legislation as desperately needed by the state’s working poor, noting the last legislature failed to raise the state minimum wage above the federal $5.15 an hour.
The purchasing power of that $5.15 per hour is at its lowest level since 1955, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. As Spry puts it, a “living wage is $10.61, to make ends meet. That takes a lot of $5-an-hour jobs.”
“I can’t think of a time in my and my husband’s life when we have had single jobs. My children don’t even have single jobs,” says Spry, married 38 years and mother of five. “Minimum wage is not going to cut it.”
Spry, one of six Native American women to enter a state race this year, is facing Bill Napoli of Rapid City, the outspoken Republican incumbent and sponsor of the abortion ban in the Legislature.
After the governor’s signature in March made the abortion ban law, the bipartisan South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, based in Sioux Falls, generated a successful nine-week petition drive, delivering 37,846 signatures to put the abortion ban on November’s referendum ballot.
June’s primary election saw the state’s long-dominant Republican Party align even more tightly in favor of the ban, provoking some former Republicans to jump ship and run as Democrats. Republican primary voters defeated all four of their party’s state senators who voted against the abortion ban and the party’s state convention then endorsed it.
A Pro-Choice Republican
The Wish List, a political action committee based in Alexandria, Va., that supports pro-choice Republican women, has endorsed one candidate in South Dakota to date: Joni Cutler, an incumbent representative from Sioux Falls.
South Dakota is a “pro-life state,” Cutler says, but “most people here aren’t comfortable knowing this ban puts rape victims in a horrible bind. It’s a very black-and-white bill for the complexities of life that are not so black and white.” Cutler points to the strength of the voter initiative that placed the ban on November’s ballot as evidence that the ban’s lack of rape and incest provisions may doom it.
“I’ve had many phone calls and e-mails from people who suffer just knowing this legislation is out there, victims of rape who don’t want to make public statements,” says Cutler.
State Democratic Party chair Judy Olson Duhamel says her legislative candidates’ showing is “the best I’ve seen in at least 14 years” but hesitates to pinpoint the abortion ban as the primary cause. “It’s also the fact that South Dakota has been so dominated by one party,” she says. “Better decisions are made when you have a solid two-party system.”
The economy of this largely rural state depends mostly on livestock production and agriculture, with seasonal tourism second in line.
Lack of Public Health Care
Charon Asetoyer, director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, ran as a Democrat for the state Senate in a rural southeastern district, but was defeated by a pro-ban candidate in the June primary. As she campaigned through her extensive, 100-mile-long district, she talked about the health needs of the rural eastern part of the state that she wanted to represent.
“There is no public health care,” says Asetoyer, who says this means women have restricted or distant access to reproductive care.
Avera, a Catholic-run system of over 100 clinics and hospitals headquartered in Sioux Falls, dominates health services in the eastern part of the state. U.S. Catholic health care operations adhere to national church directives prohibiting contraceptives, tubal ligation, emergency contraception and in-vitro fertilization.
The federal Indian Health Service–a federal agency that provides health care to Native Americans–is strapped for funds, Asetoyer says, and as a result relies on the Catholic system.
“I.H.S. contracts out and doesn’t provide a lot of services anymore. Here’s the federal government contracting with the Catholic-owned hospital to provide ob-gyn services. We’re not getting the full array of services and the counseling is an issue,” Asetoyer says.
Suzanne Batchelor is a Texas-based independent journalist.
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For more information:
Women Run! South Dakota
The Wish List
South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families
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