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Election Ads Reframe Abortion Debate


On the day before they head to the polls to determine whether to let stand a state law that bans virtually all abortions, South Dakotans, in newspapers throughout the state, are being asked to reconsider the question of abortion from a different perspective. In stark and striking advertisements, devoid of illustration, Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) seeks to shift the emphasis in the abortion debate from prohibition to prevention of abortion, and offers a program of measures the group’s president, Frances Kissling, believes could do just that. These include universal access to health care, contraceptives that work and high-quality, affordable day care.

Two versions of the ad were created in collaboration with Public Media Center, a non-profit organization based in California. In one, words in large type stack up to say, “How to end the abortion wars.”  In between each of those words, in smaller type, are the individual points of CFFC’s “Prevention Not Prohibition” program:

Picture a world where safe and reliable birth control is available and everybody uses it;
where the decision to become a parent is made responsibly;
where parents have easy access to child care;
where people have health care whether or not they have a job.
In this world abortions aren’t illegal. They’re prevented.
Isn’t that the best choice of all?

A second version of the ad runs, in large type, the words, “Nobody wants to need an abortion.”

South Dakota became the locus of a major battle in abortion politics when the state legislature passed, earlier this year, a comprehensive ban on all abortions, except for those required to save the life of a pregnant woman. Under the new law, a doctor who performs an abortion for any other reason will have committed a felony. The ban was designed, according to Republican Gov. Mike Rounds’ quote in the New York Times, as a “full frontal attack” on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. The idea is to bait prochoice groups into challenging the ban in federal court in the hope of ultimately bringing it before the high court, which is today dominated by conservatives. Antichoice forces are betting that the justices would uphold the ban, thus overturning Roe.

As election day neared, the campaigning on both sides gained in intensity, with tight polls showing the prochoice side with an edge, but taking nothing for granted. (See Women’s Media Center Exclusive: S.D. Choice Advocates Pull Into Home Stretch.)  Figures released earlier this week show the two main groups directly involved in campaigning on the ballot measure (which CFFC is not) having each collected around $2 million for their war chests. Among the significant donations received by the group Vote Yes for Life is $70,000 donated by the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men’s organization. The opposition group, The South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families, has drawn significant funding from Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights organizations.

In selecting South Dakota as one of the states in which its ads will run, Kissling notes that some 30 percent of the state’s population is Catholic. “We think it’s important for those people to hear from Catholics For a Free Choice,” Kissling says, “to hear a perspective on abortion that’s a little bit different…that there are ways of dealing with the question of abortion other than prohibiting it.”

The ads will run in five South Dakota papers today, reaching the cities of Aberdeen, Mitchell, Rapid City, Watertown and Sioux Falls. CFFC has already run the advertisements in Pennsylvania and Ohio papers, as well as in Washington State. Early next year, the organization will continue the campaign with a $200,000 ad buy.

Adele M. Stan is a regular contributor to The American Prospect Online and author of the weblog, She conducted a research project for Catholics for a Free Choice in 1998.

This article originally appeared 6 November 2006 at

Catholics for Choice