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April 13, 2007

The Last Clinic Standing

Let's Talk About Sex

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Leslee Unruh

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington

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Politics normally don't interest Nancy, 26, a cherubic-looking hairstylist from Aberdeen, SD. But when she discovered she was pregnant in late May 2006, Nancy (not her real name) wound up thinking a lot about the political intricacies of the controversial procedure, especially how much "people hate abortion in South Dakota." She finds the hostility toward abortion confusing. "I already have a 6-year-old," she says, looking around the Sioux Falls clinic waiting room. "I know what parenting is like." Her boyfriend of two-and-a-half-years, Jim, 24, a Spartacus-looking construction foreman, seems more understanding of the pro-life position. He's clearly conflicted about Nancy's decision. "It's hard not having a say in the matter," he says. "This week hasn't been easy."

Like many unintended pregnancies, Nancy's is not the result of carelessness but of statistical odds. "She was using birth control," Jim tells me. "Really. She was on the Pill." Regardless, the South Dakota Task Force on Abortion finds that the procedure Nancy wants to get "exploits the mother . . . damages her health . . . and portrays [her] as valueless." Nancy searches the corners of the clinic room for a way to defend herself against the notion she's doing anything but what's best for herself and the child she already has. Finding no answers in the drywall, she gestures toward her boyfriend. He's younger than me," she says. "Only 24. Just starting his life. I'm trying to hold mine together. Really, people should mind their own business." She gets up to go have her abortion. That Nancy and Jim were having sex is undeniably what caused her unintended pregnancy. Leslee Unruh, founder of the abstinence clearinghouse, thinks sex creates many other ills, too-cervical cancer, bad grades, and poor female self-esteem. That's why she was one of the main lobbying forces last year behind both South Dakota's abortion ban and a law to teach school children "that it is the expected standard to abstain from sexual activity until they are married." The abstinence law passed in the South Dakota house of representatives but was never voted on in the state senate. Since 2003, Unruh's organization has received grants from the Bush administration's $113 million budget for community-based abstinence programs.

Unruh, 51, a descendent of Laura Ingalls Wilder, describes herself as "an all-natural type" who raised goats in order to give her five children organic milk. In her youth, Unruh was pro-choice. At age 19, she met her husband, who was pro-life. The couple had many "hot" discussions about the issues, but Unruh didn't change her position until, between her third and fourth child, she had an abortion because her doctor said her life was jeopardized by the pregnancy. "I was given information, but not all the information," Unruh says. "I made a choice-the wrong choice. I'm into taking personal responsibility." The procedure left Unruh deeply bereaved. She turned her regret into action and in 1984 opened the Alpha Center, a pregnancy "counseling" service. Three years later, the center paid a $500 fine after Unruh was accused of offering pregnant women money in exchange for not aborting.

Working with so many pregnant women led Unruh to see what she calls "feminism's new lie"-the myth that women can be as sexually rapacious as men, and as happily promiscuous as Sex and the City's Samantha."When a man has sex, it's just physical," she says. "It's scientifically proven that women get attached. And he who cares the least has the most power." Ergo, virginity, in Unruth's view, is the key to feminine clout.
"I slept around," I tell Unruh. "I don't feel any worse for the wear." (For the record, I'm now a faithfully married 40-year-old with a 6-year-old daughter.)

"You're rare," she says. "Most women who use their bodies have damage, emotionally and physically. But I don't want you to think I think badly of you."

Unruh doesn't think badly of Planned Parenthood, either. She "likes" the Sioux Falls clinic director, Kate Looby, but feels that Planned Parenthood deceives its patients by giving them birth control and abortions. An unintentionally pregnant woman, especially, "needs the truth," says Unruh.

"What's the truth?" I ask.

"That there's a little life there from the moment of conception. But the abortion industry is big business, so they won't tell you that."


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