Reporters Notebook: Maria Hinojosa’s Personal Account
I was thrilled when I found out I would be going to South Dakota, but not entirely for the reasons you might expect. Of course, as a journalist, I was excited about sinking my teeth into a story that could change legal history in this country with the ban of abortions in that state. But a part of me was more excited for less intellectual reasons….there are only seven states in our country I haven’t been to and South Dakota was one of them.
What would it be like? The great plains were finally going to come alive for me. But what does a state where they have passed a law banning abortions look and sound like?
As it turns out, South Dakota doesn’t immediately look all that different. At one point on our second day, after we had driven through long stretches of non-descript strip mall territory in Sioux Falls, I said to my producers William Brangham and Karla Murthy, "So, when do we get to the real downtown?" expecting they would tell me about the low skyscrapers I had somehow missed.
"This is it," they said.
As opposed to New York, a skyscraper here means five stories, I thought to myself. But as I looked closer I began to see things. There is only one Planned Parenthood clinic in the state that performs abortions and only on one day of the week. There are "crisis pregnancy centers" that say they offer abortion information, but inside they only counsel women to turn away from abortion. There are signs on barns that say in huge letters "Choose Life!" In conversations, young hip-looking women would tell me they thought the abortion ban was the right way for the state to go. But a local legislator in her 60’s said she was so concerned she had even thought about leaving the state.
At one of the private hospitals in Sioux Falls, we met Dr. Maria Bell, a top gynecologist and an expert in robotic surgery. Looking like she could be walking down Fifth Avenue in her fabulous pink boots and black pencil skirt, Bell reminded me that South Dakota is the home of the quintessential liberal George McGovern. "We have been asleep at the wheel," she said, "and the conservative forces have just taken over." For her, this abortion ban will have real consequences. If and when the new law goes into effect, if she performs an elective abortion on a patient she could be charged with a felony and sentenced to five years in prison.
While we were in Sioux Falls, my producers and I ended up spending some time with a colleague who was born and raised in South Dakota. He is an avid believer in the abortion ban and told us he is unabashedly conservative and committed to strict family values. We exchanged stories about raising kids in America today and interestingly found a lot of common ground. But also many differences. Whereas he believes abstinence is the only appropriate way to approach sex education, my personal approach is to foster an open and frank conversation with my children where I reiterate to them (unlike the way I was raised by my traditional Mexican parents) that they can ask me any question they might have regarding sexuality.
Finding common ground with Representative Roger Hunt, the local Republican lawmaker who wrote the language for the abortion ban law, was a little more of a challenge. When I pressed him to answer my questions about why the state wanted to make it virtually impossible for women who had been victims of rape or incest to have an abortion, he said that there are many families in South Dakota who would want to adopt a child that may have been a product of incest. His argument is that a life created is a life created. Don’t punish an unborn child with abortion simply because the father was committing a crime in the process of creating that life, he was saying.
Things have been turned upside-down in South Dakota, but not from the outside. This is a genuine home-grown movement. There is a push for a referendum on the November ballot that would let citizens vote yes or no on the ban, so maybe everyone can take part in the democratic dialogue. But what concerns me are the voices that may choose to go silent. Women who have had abortions are afraid to go public and show their faces because they worry about retribution, even physical attacks. Dr. Maria Bell says her colleagues worry that the hospital will lose potential clients who are pro-life when she identifies herself as pro-choice.
But the debate around this abortion ban is also fascinating because it allows us to pull back the covers on the heated exchange within the pro-life movement. Many staunch pro-lifers are upset that South Dakota has passed this extreme version of a law which outlaws abortions unless a woman is virtually on her death bed. They worry that its severity will invigorate the pro-choice movement across the country.
We’ve had this national conversation for the past 33 years since Roe v Wade legalized abortion. And the intensity builds with every battle. Though I found that South Dakota is a lot like other places in the country, a place where this Mexican-born, Chicago-raised reporter actually felt at home at times, this abortion fight is going to divide us even further as a nation, making it harder to find that common ground we so need to enjoy the benefits of our own democracy.