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New abortion ban shows that life is only sometimes sacred

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In America, life is sacred.

Sort of.

On March 6, South Dakota’s Republican governor, Michael Rounds, signed the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban into law. He and his legislature are taking President Bush’s new Supreme Court for a test drive, aiming to challenge the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and precipitate the nationwide criminalization of abortion.

The South Dakota law, if held up, would make it a felony to perform an abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger. There are absolutely no exceptions for rape or incest. Mississippi and Missouri have already jumped on the bandwagon, forming a confederacy of dunces considering similar legislation.

Governor Rounds exercised some highfaluting and hypocritical rhetoric defending the ban. “In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society,” he said.

Like all anti-abortion rhetoric, that’s a lovely sentiment. Unfortunately, cursory research reveals that South Dakota is hardly a poster child for the defense of its tired, poor, and huddled masses. Eighteen thousand of the state’s children have no health insurance. Two-thirds of its fourth-graders perform below grade level in math and reading. More than 27,000 children live in poverty in South Dakota, and the state is home to all three of the nation’s worst counties for child poverty.

I bet that’s not on their commemorative quarter.

If Governor Rounds is so committed to easing the plight of society’s “most vulnerable and most helpless,” where is his soap box on these issues? Cruelly, his inflated rhetoric only highlights his state’s lamentable record with its citizens who have actually been born.

Rounds’ flawed reasoning continues: He invoked Brown v. Board of Education to prove that judicial activism is positive, and that Roe v. Wade could — and should — be overturned. This argument is way too simple-minded.

The truth is, both the best and the worst decisions in Supreme Court history have been made by activist judges. Arguments over the inherent wisdom of judicial activism or restraint are useless, because there will always be cases to “prove” either opinion.

Sure, the verdict in Brown v. Board of Education was courageous and just. But consider the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, another paradigmatic example of judicial activism. It ruled that no one of African descent could be an American citizen and that slavery was permissible everywhere — not just in southern states. The case helped trigger the Civil War. We can accept, a century and a half later, that some of our nation’s hoi polloi were ignorant. But that our government’s best thinkers would conclude that one man could own another — that is a historical blemish even more embarrassing than the institution of slavery itself.

Of course, the problem isn’t only South Dakota. Shoddy anti-abortion rhetoric has been rubbing me the wrong way for a very long time. Anti-abortion activists love to wax high and mighty, spewing that life is sacred. I don’t buy it. Call me cynical, but I’ve taken a long, hard look at this country and I just don’t buy it.

Consider that 40 percent of American children live in a household with a gun, and that 42 million Americans under age 65 have no health insurance. Consider that our nation can’t cough up the Kevlar for our soldiers on foreign soil or that we’re titillated by torture on prime time television.

Consider that we’re one of only two industrialized nations to have a death penalty (the other is Japan, with two or three executions per year, compared to over a hundred for us).

It seems to me that in America, life is sacred the way marriage is sacred: in ideology, in fantasy, in the space between the teleprompter and our president’s empty stare.

If life isn’t really that sacred in this country, then what’s all the hullabaloo over abortion? The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if this isn’t just a machination of the religious right, as it tirelessly attempts to force its way into our personal lives. The pessimist in me wonders how much the American hoi polloi has learned since the days of slavery.

In the centuries since our crude cluster of colonies became united states, our nation has done a lot to protect our revered liberty. We once went to war with ourselves in the name of freedom. So make no mistake: If we are not free within our own bodies, then we are not free.