Letter from South Dakota — From the December 2016 issue

With Child

The right to choose in Rapid City

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Largely rural and sparsely inhabited, South Dakota has two main population centers: Rapid City, in the west, and Sioux Falls, in the east. They feel like separate states; each is in a different time zone. “West River,” as South Dakotans call the region Ashley comes from, west of the Missouri River, is the more conservative. The major industries are cattle ranching and mining. Most residents are religious — the assumption is that you’re a Christian. At Rapid City’s Rushmore Mall, Sunday services are held at Hills of Grace Fellowship, next door to MasterCuts and around the corner from Hot Topic. Things here tend to stay the same. Families can trace their roots back three or four generations. Some residents never leave their zip code.

People living in Rapid City must travel farther to reach an abortion provider than residents of any other place in the nation. The lone abortion clinic in the state is the Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls, 350 miles away, in South Dakota’s more progressive southeastern corner. I-90, the main thoroughfare between the two cities, is frequently closed during the winter because of snow and ice. A few years ago, when a blizzard hit, dead and bloated cattle lined the highway. All the Planned Parenthood doctors fly in from out of state, and patients are required to see the same person for both their appointments, so if a doctor’s plane is canceled or the highway is closed on any leg of the trip, the process has to begin all over again. “Most people make the trip on Monday and have their visit and turn around and drive right back,” explained the clinic manager. “And the same thing on Thursday.”

Once South Dakota’s waiting-period law went into effect, the Red River Women’s Clinic, in Fargo, North Dakota, began seeing an increase in patients crossing the border. Red River is the only abortion provider in North Dakota, and in fact the same few doctors serve the whole region, flying from Minneapolis to Fargo, Sioux Falls, and a few other cities on a rotating schedule.

The cost of the abortion, the cost of transportation, the cost of childcare, missed work, an overnight stay, a possible delay because of snow or ice — these are among the burdens women in South Dakota must bear when they seek a medical procedure that is now regulated unlike any other. But the law is not the only source of the pressure that women experience: the bounds of what is culturally acceptable are also narrowing. In Rapid City, even pro-choice activists seemed nervous when I spoke too frankly in public. “Watch the a-bombs,” one woman whispered to me in a restaurant.

HA062__03HK0-1Ashley grew up in a former mining town in the Black Hills. Her high-school class, which graduated in 2008, had fewer than eighty students. Sex education was limited; the assumption was that kids would learn what they needed to know at home. Ashley’s family attended mass every Sunday, and her parents counseled abstinence until marriage. But students nonetheless tended to become sexually active in early high school. Ashley and her friends would get together for “cackling-hen talk,” as she called it, about what the guys were doing to impress them when they “went all the way.” She guessed that at least five girls in her class were pregnant before they turned twenty.

In college, Ashley met Peter at a fraternity party, in a dark, smoke-filled basement. A year after they started dating, Ashley discovered she was pregnant. She was nineteen. Her sophomore year had barely begun. She and Peter got along well, but they weren’t in love. She had wanted to travel the world in her twenties, not start a family in her teens, yet the path seemed clear. “We’re definitely keeping it, right?” Peter said when Ashley broke the news. Both of them came from Christian families and they were raised to know right from wrong. It was 2009, the year after South Dakota’s second attempt to ban abortion. Ashley had seen the pro-life ads, read the op-eds by pro-life pediatricians, witnessed the heated demonstrations. The fervor helped reinforce what was acceptable and what wasn’t. At her wedding, she was twenty-one weeks pregnant.

Ashley stayed in college, but pregnancy ended her career on the cross-country team and wrecked her athlete’s body. And while she loved being a parent, she sometimes felt that she had no life outside her roles as a wife and mother. These feelings began to change in 2013, when she took up weight lifting. On social media, she documented her changing body and growing sense of autonomy. In one video, she looks off into the distance, takes a deep breath, and deadlifts more than her body weight.

Ashley considered herself an independent thinker; she believed that women who faced unwanted pregnancies should be able to do whatever best suited them. But now that she was pregnant again, none of her options seemed good. She already had one child, so pregnancy was not an abstraction; she couldn’t avoid imagining the fetus as the beginnings of a specific person rather than as a collection of cells. At the same time, she knew that if she kept the baby, her parents would be terribly disappointed in her. The child would be born out of wedlock, and Ashley worried they wouldn’t love it as much as her first. The “sperm donor,” as Ashley called him, was half black, and in all likelihood she would be the mother of a noticeably biracial baby in an overwhelmingly white city. Ashley knew that her husband wouldn’t be seen as the “real” dad — he was “as white as the day is long.” She imagined herself as the maid of honor at her sister’s wedding that fall, seven months pregnant with another man’s child.

The logistics were yet another consideration. She would need to be gone for at least a day and a night. Who would watch Ashley’s son if not her parents? How could she explain needing to leave town on a Wednesday, the only day the Billings clinic could schedule her surgical abortion?

Ashley’s close friends were mothers, and asking for their support — emotional or material — would be asking them to aid in what was, to them, a moral wrong. “They would say abortion is murder,” Ashley explained. “Or selfishness on the mom’s part. Like, ‘Well, you should’ve kept your legs shut, then.’ ”

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