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April 13, 2007

The Last Clinic Standing

Abortion Clinics in South Dakota

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington

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Looby, a mother of four, thought she'd seen the anti-abortion movement's most virulent moment when she worked at a clinic during operation Rescue's 1991 "Summer of Mercy." That August, in Wichita, KS, whole families crawled across parking lots, winding up as heaps of "babies" at clinic doors. Children laid down in front of doctors' cars to stop them from driving to work. Protestors closed down every clinic in town. In Omaha, NE, other protestors showed up at a shower Looby's clinic staff threw for her shortly before she gave birth to her first child. "My husband and I decided we had to get out of there," Looby says. She laughs, briefly. "We came here."

I can't even smile with her. After Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy" success, anti-abortion leaders began planning a "Spring of Life" in Buffalo. "They'll never drive me out," my uncle Bart told his local paper when he learned of the upcoming event. "I'm not sure what they can do to me that hasn't been done-short of physical violence."

A year later, abortion doctors started getting shot. During the five years between the first murder and my uncle's, I became increasingly aware of the tension surrounding the issue. But for whatever reason, not once did I say to my uncle, who was becoming so depressed he began planning his own funeral, "Gee, Bart, doing abortions seems to be getting to you, and it's definitely getting very dangerous, so why not just quit?" Or just, "Bart, love you." Instead, assiduously marched in pro-choice rallies and considered anyone who opposed abortion a backward woman-hater-not that ever spoke to anyone who was pro-life.Since my uncle died, I've gotten to know a lot of people who are pro-life. Some are decent; others are backward. But, as Yitshak Rabin said, you make peace with enemies, not friends.

Now, in search of some peacemaking, I climb into my rented Pontiac and take off for South Dakota's capital, Pierre-which locals pronounce "peer"-the epicenter of the abortion debate. At 70 miles an hour on surgical-scar-straight roads, it's a nearly four-hour drive populated with more cows and buffalo than people. Over and over, wavy grassland turns into neat rows of corn and back again. The scene's serenity is marred only by billboards: among the most common are those for a place called wall drug, a pharmacy that sells things like mounted jackalopes (a dead rabbit with deer antlers); and those that herald the evils of abortion ("The gift of life, God's special gift!"), often accompanied by a portrait of what appears to be a smiling fetus, not a born baby, but I'm never sure.

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