Op-Ed and photos by Lise King
The anti-abortion cause is about a very well-funded and well-organized group of people who believe that their religious values are the correct ones, that anyone who does not agree with them are misguided and lost souls, and that it is their God-sworn duty to protect us from ourselves (sounding familiar?). I went to the rally in Rapid City in opposition to HB 1215, which is where I asked the Pro-lifers about their views on HB 1215, and their personal values.
I went as a journalist, and I made a supreme effort to hear both sides of the debate objectively. What I found was a debate divided clearly between the “pro-rights of the individual” versus the individual’s interpretation of the “word of God.” Religion, and the ages-old argument over whose interpretation is the correct one, is at the center of this very contentious debate. As I approached the rally on foot (parking close was impossible), I found myself becoming very emotional. I was surprised at the numbers of people who crowded the sidewalks, the noise, and the energy being expressed by those people who turned out in opposition to the Bill. Strong expression that is not of an evangelical nature is rarely seen in this Republican cow town. I was so proud of those men and women who came out to exercise their freedom of speech and expression in an environment that tends to punish those who would dare to contradict the our right-wing Christian majority in Western South Dakota.
After taking the prerequisite photos and notes, I turned my attention to the other side of the street where a group had gathered to oppose the opposition. They were dominated by Catholic church signs and children in strollers, and a gaggle of teenagers shouting at passing cars about Jesus and babies. They cheered and jumped, smiling wide, like they were at a football game as people honked at them. They waved American flags, they held cute pictures and had small children holding signs for the passing traffic to read. I was surprised by my own adrenaline rush in response to this scene.
As a journalist, I have found that I am human and will emotionally react to situations, but it is my job to acknowledge my reactions and still objectively represent both sides of an issue. So, I went bravely into the crowd across the street and began to ask questions. I approached one woman who was quieter than the rest, standing behind the shouting line at the edge of the curb. She held a sign that said, “Re: Abortion After Rape: Don’t Follow One Act of Violence With Another Act of Violence.” I asked her to explain. She said, “I don’t think the bill went far enough. If a baby is conceived, that is God’s will, no matter what….If a woman is raped or incested, or is going to die because of carrying a baby, then that is God’s will, too.” She made it clear that her Christian faith guided her to know that this is God’s Truth. I pointed out that there were plenty of Christians on the other side of the street, to which she responded, “Those aren’t real Christians. They are lost. They are wrong. They don’t know the Lord like I know the Lord.”
Then I went to the screaming bunch at the front of the pack. One young man held a sign that said, “We Vote Pro-Life.” I asked him if he was old enough to vote. He said, “No, but I will be some day.” He was fifteen. It turned out that the young group, many of them in uniform, were from the local St. Thomas More Catholic High School. Several of them expressed that it was cool that they got to skip classes to be out there on the street. They all were very interested in telling me their opinions about abortion. Many of the boys were quick to point out that the sin was sex and that they were virgins. The girls, as a group, were less vocal about their personal affairs. Twice, our conversation was interrupted by adult men who wanted to engage me in debate. I was simply asking questions, I explained, not debating any issues. I told one man that I was “not interested in arguing with him. “But I am interested in arguing with you,” he responded aggressively. At that point I looked around to make sure that my husband was close by.
When I got back to The Native Voice office, I called the Principal at St. Thomas More High School. He said that the school was not affiliated with the event, but that more than thirty kids had been checked out of school that day by their parents to be at the rally. I asked him if he believed it appropriate for fourteen, fifteen and sixteen year old students to be participating in an event that was, at the core, about sexual issues. He responded by saying, “In the Catholic Church, we teach them young, and we teach them often.” And therein lies the core of the matter.
The “Pro-Life” protesters were expressing a religious belief. I asked many of them how they explained the large numbers of Christians who were protesting HB 1215, and pointed out that President Bush himself expressed his concern about an anti-abortion bill that would not allow for his “three exceptions” of rape, incest and the life of the mother being threatened. The answer was clear and consistent: those are not “true” Christians who “know the Lord.” Two people said that the difference is one of being Protestant versus being Catholic. One person countered them, saying, “Oh, don’t go there.”
If that is, in fact, the core value split (this is not to leave out the non-Christians, but the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and in even ihgher numbers in South Dakota), there may be no reconciling the two sides. After all, Protestants are so-named because they were “protesting” the Catholic Church. As the French say, “Plus ce qui change, plus c’est la meme chose.” The more that changes, the more that remains the same. As a publisher, it is very interesting to me that it was the advent of the printing press that historically went hand-in-hand with the rise of Protestantism. Before that time, for the most part the only Christian Europeans who could read were the wealthy aristocracy and members of the Catholic Church. Books, including the Bible, were made and written by hand. They were extremely expensive. Thus, the clergy “interpreted” God’s word for the masses, since only they could read and interpret and therefore teach the word of God. This proved useful in many ways.
Once the printing press made books affordable and more available to the people, people learned to read. And once they began reading scripture for themselves, they began asserting their own interpretations. This did not go over well with the Catholic Church, which at the time was selling indulgences to European royalty (these were pieces of paper that “indulged” the sins of the aristocracy, and forgave their sins, for a hefty price). Having the power to use one’s own mind to seek out the meaning of God and scripture rather than simply being told what to believe and being a servant to the decree of the church is a principle difference between Protestant and Catholic. Much blood has been shed over this debate. Let’s not carry that tradition forward into darkened rooms where women will resort to extreme measures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
When John F. Kennedy was running for President of the United States, there was concern over his being the first Catholic President. There was speculation that he would always be beholden to the word of the Pope first, not the will of the People. Kennedy was progressive in terms of the Catholic Church, and a Pope-centered presidency was not the legacy that he left.
One must wonder where the Catholic South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds’ views on abortion are formed. One must hope that he will remember that our Founding Fathers were wise in their musings on the necessary separation of Church and State. It is not to say that we are not to expect our leaders to have their lives guided by their spiritual or religious beliefs, but that they must be thoughtful, balanced and measured in their application of leadership – and that they must respect and defend the spiritual and religious diversity of the people they are supposed to represent. Catholic or not, Christian or not, “believers”…or not.
In the end, the issue isn’t even about whether or not you believe in abortion. It is about whether or not you believe in the right of government to legislate and regulate such personal matters based upon specific religious beliefs.
[Sidebar] Girls from St. Thomas More Catholic High School in Rapid City take a break from classes to rally against the HB 1215 protesters. [Sidebar] This protester’s belief: “If a baby is conceived, that is God’s will….If a woman is raped or incested, or is going to die because of carrying a baby, then that is God’s will, too.”