In states like South Dakota where abortion is now outlawed, students ramp up activism


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VERMILLION, S.D. VERMILLION, S.D. — Students looked like they were getting ready to see Harry Styles perform as they spread out on the University of South Dakota’s student centre carpet. The sound of early 2000s pop music was a constant as the students sat on poster boards and cardboard boxes, talking, exchanging fake flowers and shaking paint pens.

This article also appeared in USA Today

A closer inspection of the bright paint and rhinestones revealed that they were not fans. They had signs that read “You cut off mine reproductive rights, should you cut off yours?” And “The hardest decision an individual can make is not yours.”

Students prepared for a march on campus in protest of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban abortion in their state. They encouraged each other to refrain from using gendered language and to think carefully before they used images such as clothes hangers.

Students made signs in protest of the state’s ban on abortion to show their solidarity as they prepared to march through the University of South Dakota campus.

As they worked together, Lexi McKee Hemenway wore cargo pants, a tanktop and sparkly silver eyes to make her way through the group. She was wearing a spiral notebook to track down fellow students interested in leadership positions in the university’s Students for Reproductive Rights.

McKee-Hemenway is the president of the group. He is one of many college students who are tirelessly advocating for changes to policy and laws that make abortion legal again. It can be difficult to work on both of these goals simultaneously.

McKee-Hemenway stated, “That’s all very frightening, it’s very dismal.” McKee-Hemenway said, “There are still resources and there are people who will help them get these resources. Although it is difficult, we will succeed.

South Dakota is one 14 state that has banned abortions, with very few exceptions, as of September. Most other states had “trigger” laws designed to go into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court. Other states’ bans are still being challenged in state courts.

The 2005 law in South Dakota, which prohibits abortion, telemedicine abortions, and allows no exceptions for pregnancies that are raped or incest, is one of the most restrictive in the country. Two attempts to ban abortion through amending the state constitution failed. However, approximately 45 percent of voters supported them.

South Dakota is one of many states that have banned abortion. However, they do not require that public school students receive sexual education. South Dakota doesn’t require sex education to be medically accurate. It also doesn’t need consent information.

Related: How can college campuses prepare for a post-Roe world.

Kate Cartagena is the Planned Parenthood’s director of youth campaigns. She said that young people don’t know enough about sexual education to be able to control their bodies.

Planned Parenthood’s Generation Action Program supports over 350 high school and college advocacy organizations, including the Students for Reproductive Rights at University of South Dakota. With 7,000 undergraduates, it is the second-largest college in the state after South Dakota State. Generation Action encourages students not only to support abortion access but also for local needs such as travel funds for students who choose abortions, and flexible attendance policies to ensure that students are not penalized academically for missing class to receive care.

Although the university group receives support and guidance from Planned Parenthood’s larger organization, students and faculty advisers stated that they work mostly on campus on their own.

Students created signs with their hands before marching across campus to protest South Dakota’s abortion ban. They advocate for safe abortion care, and are trying to find ways to help those who might become pregnant or need abortions. Credit: Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger report

McKee-Hemenway is passionate about abortion rights for a long time. However, when she received an alert about Roe v. Wade being overturned, McKee-Hemenway felt like the world was crumbling around her.

McKee-Hemenway stated, “I have tried to not make politics my whole life, but now it is more of a moral thing.”

Students and professionals across the country were preparing for the Supreme Court’s decision. Advocates for Youth had just five weeks left to run a doula training program for young people in the United States. The goal was to help them support one another before, during, and after an abortion. URGE stands for Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity and helps student groups across the country learn how to advocate for their rights in state legislatures.

Because many colleges in states that allow abortion are dependent on funding from the state legislatures, this can lead to complicated situations for them. Some choose to keep silent while others, such as the University of Idaho have asked faculty to talk about abortion only neutrally. They have also stopped offering birth control to students in an effort to not break the law.

President Joe Biden, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, urged colleges to keep access to birth control.

Cardona stated Tuesday that he wanted to make it clear to college leaders in America that access to contraception should never be in doubt and that access to health care including reproductive health care is crucial to the well-being and success of our nation’s students.

Students at the University of South Dakota are upset about the Supreme Court’s decision that led to a ban on abortion in their state. They claim that they should have the right to make medical decisions about their bodies. Credit: Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger report

According to South Dakota law, anyone who orders, administers, or procures an abortifacient is guilty of a felony. This includes a maximum of two years imprisonment or a $4,000 fine. Only an “appropriately reasonable” medical decision that an abortion is necessary to save a mother’s life is an exception.

McKee-Hemenway advocates say that the law leaves medical providers without a clear definition of what constitutes a risk to the health of a pregnant woman. People like McKee-Hemenway are left unsure of what they can do for their peers who require abortion care.

They have limited options.

Student who is less then 11 weeks pregnant may have a medication abortion at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Sioux City (Iowa), which is approximately 40 miles from campus. A student must travel almost 140 miles to Omaha, Nebraska to receive a procedural abortion. This is allowed under Nebraska state law. Students without financial or car resources may not be able to travel out of state for an abortion. However, it is legal. To go from Vermillion to Omaha, for example, it would take approximately two hours to drive. It would take much longer to travel by public transit. There are multiple transfers, some walking, and the journey would require several transfers.

Others on campus think these are not the only options. The pro-life student group at the university helps pregnant women to access early-term care in nearby crisis pregnancy centers and to continue their pregnancy.

Related: OB-GYN training is being challenged by Roe

It’s not clear if the university will help those seeking abortions.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in June, the school has not issued a statement regarding the restrictions on abortion access. Multiple requests for comment from representatives of the university were not answered.

McKee-Hemenway, a junior, is frustrated by the silence. She hopes to graduate before the end of this academic school year. She said that the university should have at least told students that basic health care was not going to be provided to them here. “You will need to leave the state at your own pace and with your own money.

Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger Report
Students created signs with their hands before marching across campus to protest South Dakota’s abortion ban. They advocate for safe abortion care, and are trying to find ways to help those who might become pregnant or need abortions.

Despite being from South Dakota, she is not alone. Many of her peers hail from states that allow abortion.

Students for Reproductive Rights at the University of South Dakota hand out information and stickers about abortion access every week in their student center. This is to let students know that they have options for if they get pregnant. Credit: Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger report

Rosamaria Rodriguez, a Minnesotan native, began to question her college’s decision after learning that the Supreme Court decision would affect her rights in South Dakota.

Rodriguez stated that she liked the campus and found the people to be a good fit. However, Rodriguez did not know if she wanted to spend her college years somewhere where they wouldn’t respect my body.

She decided to stay with her decision because she wanted to become a doctor and this university was the best for her academically. As a freshman, she moved to Vermillion in August and joined the Students for Reproductive Rights group.

The group members spend their time at the student center every week handing out flyers and answering students’ questions. They also march on campus and chalk slogans onto the sidewalks. The group members also provide information on how to manage an abortion online.

Related: Are we ready to help more students who become pregnant after Roe?

McKee-Hemenway stated that options are limited right now. “It’s better to know where you can go if it is necessary.”

McKee-Hemenway (20 years old) grew up six hours north of Vermillion in Sturgis (South Dakota), a small town of less than 7,000 residents today. Katy Hemenway, her mother, stated that she has always supported abortion and started talking to her daughter about reproductive issues when she was in middle school. As Lexi grew older, and began to have friends who needed birth control or morning-after pills, she realized she could call her mother for assistance if they needed it.

She was learning about real-life resources to help teens avoid pregnancies. While she was on the speech and debate teams, she learned how to deconstruct complex, controversial issues. In 2015, she was an eighth-grader. This was a year before most students. She took the bus to her local high school every Wednesday to participate.

The group debated everything, from standard testing to child labor to carbon emission taxes. McKee-Hemenway stated that abortion was brought up every year. She found her opinion on abortion to be minority opinion more often than not. She feels less like the “black sheep”, at the University of South Dakota than she felt growing up in Sturgis.

McKee-Hemenway believes that an abortion decision is personal. However, it can be difficult to talk about the topic in general terms. After a recent discussion about the Supreme Court’s implications for South Dakotans, McKee-Hemenway said that she was moved to tears by the difficulties people face when seeking abortion care. She said that organizing protests and hosting events helps boost morale among busy student advocates.

McKee-Hemenway stated that it can be difficult to keep the flames lit for very long periods of time. They can rekindle the conversation by hosting events.

Anna Bottesini is at the University of South Dakota student centre, ready to answer any questions regarding abortion access or share resources with fellow students. Credit: Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger report

Students for Reproductive Rights collects menstrual hygiene items to donate to local shelters, schools, and offers sex trivia contests to raise funds, and attempts to educate other students about reproductive rights.

Anna Bottesini (a sophomore) will assume the presidency of Students for Reproductive Rights when McKee-Hemenway graduates next Spring. She said that Roe was “like a punch to her stomach” when she heard about the Supreme Court’s decision.

She stated that there were many new faces in the group during this fall and it makes sense for her to think that this policy shift would push concerned students her way.

Related: How college parents help their young children get through college

There are many people who are worried about what happens if their birth control fails. What should I do? What then? Bottesini stated, “Because I can’t — I am a poor college student and how can i afford to, like go and do this?” There are many people upset and don’t know how to deal with it.

However, the student body has another contingent that believes in abortion and is happy with the Supreme Court’s decision and subsequent tightening laws in South Dakota.

Yotes for Life is a student anti-abortion organization that meets on campus at the St. Thomas More Newman Center. A large sign outside the building signals the group’s stance. Credit: Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger report

Yotes for Life, a student anti-abortion organization, is located just off campus at St. Thomas More Newman Center. Gavin Holt is the president of the group, and he said that even though the building is a hub to Catholic students, members don’t need to be Catholic to take part.

Holt wore a royal-blue T-shirt with the message “Remember the Unborn” across the front, the slogan of Life Runners, as he stood in front of a large projector screen. Holt is also the president of the local chapter, which is religious but is not affiliated to the university. However, it meets at the same place as the student group and has many of the same students.

Holt, a sophomore from Catholicism, avoids the use of the church’s teachings to support his views on the matter. He explained the reasoning behind Yotes for Life’s initial meeting of the year: Life is a right, and abortion takes a person’s life. Therefore, abortion is a violation.

Holt stated that the group is designed to promote a positive view of abortion and to provide resources for women who are in need at local crisis pregnancy centres. Holt and other student leaders made a list of those who were interested in volunteering at three centers near them. These centers offer counseling and advice against abortion, as well as pregnancy testing and ultrasound scans.

Holt’s group, like Students for Reproductive Rights spreads its message by using sidewalk chalk all over campus. Holt advised members not to use catchy slogans but instead to focus on useful phone numbers and other resources. Although the two groups are fundamentally different, they both agree that they try to avoid any antagonizing.

Holt stated that while he didn’t agree to them, he did not believe they were ill-willed. Holt also stated that his group wouldn’t stage a counter protest to McKee-Hemenway because he didn’t believe it was right to “ambush” another group.

Students for Reproductive Rights and their supporters from campus met outside the athletic center in late summer under the late afternoon sun. They handed out little leaflets with chants and offered sunscreen sharing.

As they marched across campus, it was 95 degrees. Although some students carried signs that they had made the night before, about 50 people marched — more than those who attended the sign-making session. McKee-Hemenway led the students in chanting, while only carrying an acoustic megaphone.

McKee-Hemenway, the College Democrats leaders and the university’s LGBTQ+ student coalition climbed up a flight of stairs to address the students from the balcony. They told students that they were not alone in fighting for legalization of abortion in South Dakota.

After the march, students and members of the community gathered to discuss plans for advocacy in post-Roe South Dakota Credit Olivia Sanchez/The Hechinger Report

There is hope that South Dakota can legalize abortion through a ballot initiative. This shifts power away from the legislators to the voters. This tactic has been successful in Kansas where 59 per cent of voters voted for abortion to be legalized. It will soon be tested in Michigan and California, Kentucky, California, Vermont, and California.

It takes a long approval process with the state, and thousands of signatures to collect the ballot initiative. Therefore it is unlikely that it will be voted on soon.

Students are encouraging each other to update their voter registrations and to prepare to vote in November. All 105 seats in the state legislature are up for election, including the Republican governor.

However, South Dakota law prohibits abortion. Students don’t know if the college will help or report them to the police if they seek abortion care. Their best option is to support one another.

McKee-Hemenway, along with others, urged their peers to not give up on their fight for bodily autonomy as well as the right to safe abortion access.

McKee-Hemenway told the crowd to “Look around.” These are your friends. This is your mutual assistance now.

The Hechinger Report is a non-profit news organization that focuses on education innovation and inequality. This story about student activism was created by The Hechinger Report. Subscribe to the Hechinger newsletter.

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