South Dakota’s Abortion Law Violates Separation of Church and State

The state’s new law not only intrudes into women’s lives in unprecedented ways. It’s a serious assault on the separation of church and state.

Getty Images,Steve Allen

With Republican state legislatures competing with each other to pass ever more stringent restrictions on abortion, you can hardly keep up with it all. One minute a Georgia representative is introducing a bill requiring police investigations of miscarriages, the next fetuses are “ testifying” in the Ohio Senate. According to Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, more antiabortion bills are being introduced in the states than at any time since her group started keeping records. Yet even in this febrile climate, South Dakota’s latest antiabortion law is shocking. Not only does it intrude into women’s lives in unprecedented ways; it’s also a serious assault on church/state separation.

The law, HB1217, requires women seeking abortions to first have a private consultation at a crisis pregnancy center, or CPC. Such centers are religious outfits that mimic the look of women’s health clinics, often deliberately imitating their logos and signage, but which exist solely to convince women not to abort. As the manual How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center, published by a group that once ran dozens of them, says, “[I]f the girl who would be going to the abortion chamber sees your office first with a similar name, she will probably come into your center.”

South Dakota’s government is directing women to centers that treat mainstream medical opinion as a liberal conspiracy.

CPCs are usually staffed by volunteers with no medical training, though they often wear scrubs or white lab coats in order to look authoritative. They offer free pregnancy tests, but are known for withholding the results until women listen to antiabortion lectures or watch antiabortion videos. Frequently, they give women false information about the risks of abortion. The website of the Alpha Center, a leading CPC in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, says that abortion increases risks for breast cancer, infertility, and depression, all claims that mainstream researchers refute.

According to the American Psychological Association, for example, “The best scientific evidence published indicates that among adult women who have an unplanned pregnancy, the relative risk of mental-health problems is no greater if they have a single elective first-trimester abortion than if they deliver that pregnancy.” But Allen Unruh, a chiropractor who cofounded the Alpha Center with his wife, Leslee, insists that the APA is purposefully spreading misinformation. “They refuse to publish the studies that have been done, because they don’t comport with their worldview,” he says. South Dakota’s government is thus directing women to centers that treat mainstream medical opinion as a liberal conspiracy.

Over the years, CPC misdeeds have been well documented. In 1991, then-Congressman Ron Wyden held hearings into their deceptive tactics, concluding they “hold out that they are health clinics, but when the women get there, there are no medical professionals. A very strident, very aggressive antiabortion campaign is what they get.” This month, New York City passed a law requiring such centers to disclose what services they do and do not provide, and to tell women whether they have a licensed medical provider on site. “The goal of this bill is to ensure that women are fully informed and not deceived when they are walking into offices that present themselves as medical offices when they are not,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said at a press conference. Democrats in Washington have introduced similar legislation at the state level.

Leslee Unruh, a prominent figure in the Christian right who was at the forefront of the campaign for HB1217, has a history of coercion. She was once charged with offering girls money to carry unwanted pregnancies to term and then put their babies up for adoption; she ended up pleading down to five counts of unlicensed adoption and foster-care practices.

"There were so many allegations about improper adoptions being made [against her] and how teenage girls were being pressured to give up their children," the state’s attorney told the Argus Leader in 2003. "Gov. George Mickelson called me and asked me to take the case." (Dr. Unruh insists his wife settled in order to protect the privacy of girls whose confidential files would be exposed during a trial.)

In South Dakota, Planned Parenthood often hears horror stories from women who first visited CPCs, mistaking them for real health centers. “What happens is that a woman goes there and is given wrong information, such as, ‘You’re too far along to have an abortion,’ when she may only be eight weeks or so,” says Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. In some cases, by the time the woman realizes she’s been misled, it really is too late for her to have an abortion in South Dakota, forcing her to go out of state.

“We have had women tell us that they were told at a crisis pregnancy center that Jesus would never forgive tem if they had an abortion,” says Stoesz. No one knows how common this is, since there’s no legal oversight of the counseling CPCs provide. But CPCs are overwhelmingly run by conservative Christians, usually either Catholic or evangelical. “The purpose of the Alpha Center is to share the great commission to every woman and couple who walks through our doors,” says its website. “For in the end, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

The South Dakota law says that when women make mandatory visits to CPCs, the staff can’t proselytize them without their written consent, but such consent may be easily extracted from someone who is already desperate and vulnerable. Dr. Unruh insists Alpha Center counselors won’t preach to anyone against her will, but he can barely restrain himself from preaching to me. “This mind-set that we have unlimited sex, unlimited condoms paid for by taxpayers and the taxpayers should fund unlimited abortion and we’ll all live in utopia, it doesn’t work!” he says. Citing John Adams, he adds, “Self-government can’t work without moral restraint.”

The possibility that the law violates women’s religious freedom “is something that we’re concerned about, and I think it’s something that we will be investigating as we prepare our lawsuit,” says Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, which plans to challenge the South Dakota law before it goes into effect on July 1. “Another thing that’s very clear from the face of the statute is that women are forced to give up private, intimate details about their lives when going to one of these centers,” she says. “No woman should have to reveal anything private about medical decisions that she’s making to a third party against her will.”

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Michelle Goldberg is a journalist based in New York. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, winner of the 2008 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and the Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book Prize. Goldberg's work has appeared in Glamour, Rolling Stone, The Nation, New York magazine, The Guardian (UK) and The New Republic. Her third book, about the world-traveling adventuress, actress and yoga evangelist Indra Devi, will be published by Knopf in 2012.