Originally published in December 2006.
“I have a son, 18, and three daughters, all in their twenties. The thought that even one parent in South Dakota might face the news that his or her daughter was not only the victim of rape but was also pregnant and would be forced—by state law—to deliver the rapist’s baby, well, that was something I knew I had to challenge.”
I shared those words with a lot of people last month when I spent the final five days before the November 7th elections campaigning in South Dakota to overturn the most restrictive abortion ban in the nation. As the director of a pro-feminist men’s center, as well as a father, I knew I had to go to South Dakota. Happily, by a more than 55% to 45% margin, we were successful and the law was overturned.
I went to South Dakota because I couldn’t remain silent. I went to support those South Dakotans who worked tirelessly for months to protect women’s rights. In Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city (population 130,000), in Watertown, Madison, and in Brookings, smaller communities between 50 and 100 miles away, I met with voters as part of a massive canvassing effort. I talked to allies and opponents, fence sitters and those fearful to share their opposition to the ban with neighbors, let alone a stranger.
I heard from a doctor, an arthritis specialist, who said he couldn’t abide by a law that would compel a woman to deliver a baby even if it would jeopardize her health. He said he was afraid to speak out in his church or on his street. Walking around in a sea of lawn signs that supported the restrictive law, I could understand his concern. I saw how well organized those who supported the restrictive ban were. But the Campaign for Healthy Families, the coalition that coordinated efforts to reverse the ban, was well organized, too. I was heartened by the native South Dakotans who were at the center of the struggle, many in their late 20s, savvy, effective, funny, big-hearted.
When I first learned of the ban last March, after the South Dakota legislature overwhelmingly passed the restriction, and Gov. Mike Rounds signed it into law, I had an epiphany: There are lots of men involved in the reproductive rights struggle but they are almost all on the side that would deny women their right to self-determination. Where are the progressive men in this struggle? Where are the fathers, I wanted to know. Over a summer of searching, I was unable to locate an organized pro-feminist men’s response. At the Men’s Resource Center for Change, in the months ahead we hope to play a role in changing that reality.
We work with all kinds of men at the MRC, from farmers to teachers, truck drivers to managers. Our programs teach men who abuse their wives or partners how to choose alternatives to violence. We offer support for divorced or separated men, for men who themselves were neglected or abused growing up. We have groups for gay, bisexual a’nd questioning men. And we offer help for any man trying to figure out whats going on in his life and who needs a safe place to talk. We also work with boys and young men in middle schools and high schools. Helping men to be better fathers is also critical to our mission.
Those of us who are dads think a lot about our children, the next generation. Who is going to carry on after us, maintain the family’s connection to their community, keep the family farm or business up and running? We care deeply about passing the torch to them. A common thread we hold is not wanting to see our children hurt and not wanting our daughters scarred. As men we need to educate ourselves about reproductive health, not just our daughters’ but our sons’, too. Fathers and sons could do themselves, and their relationships, a world of good by talking about the responsibilities that come with adult sexual activity. With George Bush’s recent controversial appointment of an outspoken opponent of contraception to oversee federal family planning policy, men have an opportunity to speak out in the community as well as in the family.
Whatever one thinks about the abortion issue, that opponents of abortion would propose laws with no provisions for rape or incest of our daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins, neighbors, members of our faith communities, not to mention the health of the mother, is a signal of how serious this struggle is. Indeed, had the ban not been overturned in South Dakota, doctors who defied it and performed abortions anyway would have faced imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. All this in 2006. In the United States of America.
I know I am not alone in understanding the dangers. Just as I refused to sit back and let go unchallenged the South Dakota abortion ban, a lot of other men feel the same way. I believe in men’s capacity to do the right thing, especially when the stakes are high. For the daughters of South Dakota, the stakes couldn’t have been any higher. There were a number of states around the country looking to South Dakota to see how far they could go with their proposed abortion bans. On November 7th the answer they got was not as far as they thought. That’s good.
With that campaign over, there is more to be done. It is time for more and more men—fathers and sons, brothers and uncles, cousins and neighbors—to stand up for women and girls, and not just those they know—their partners or wives or daughters. Doing so will demonstrate an awakening of men’s hearts and minds to step off of the sidelines and to enter the debate on reproductive rights. With awakened hearts and minds can come, I believe, the kind of courage men of conscience are ready to put into action in their lives, their homes, and their communities.