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Tuesday, March 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

South Dakota must live with its abortion-ban decision

Newspapers in South Dakota are full of worried speculation about how the state's radical stance on abortion will play to the world. The concern is justified. Internet vendors are already selling bumper stickers showing a wire hanger and the words, "South Dakota: The Back Alley Abortion State."

There are consequences to banning abortion, and they go beyond the obvious one of taking away a woman's right to end an early pregnancy. The economic and social implications are great, and states should contemplate them.

South Dakota lawmakers did not simply tighten the rules governing abortion, which many Americans want done. They virtually outlawed it, including in cases of rape and incest. Their bigger ambition is to challenge Roe v. Wade before an increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Roe guarantees a basic right to abortion. If it is overturned, the matter will fall to the states.

I am a pro-choice person who has adjusted to the possibility that Roe may go down. Let the states decide, I say, but also let the states recognize that their decisions will have far-reaching effects.

The earliest concerns in South Dakota center on possible boycotts by pro-choice tourists and consumers. A former executive in the convention business told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that South Dakota would probably lose some conventions and tourists because of the vote. But the far more compelling reasons to tread carefully around abortion policy are social. Such considerations take us into the land of the politically incorrect, but this is territory we dare not avoid.

Conservative strategists who don't care about abortion often wink at women nervous over Roe with the assurance, "Don't worry, you can always go to states that still allow abortions."

That would certainly be true for women with money. But women who are poor, disorganized or otherwise dysfunctional would just stay at home and have babies they don't want.

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt co-authored a famous study that connected the sharp drop in crime during the 1990s to the 1973 Roe decision in 1973. Its thesis, covered in the best-selling book "Freakonomics," was the following: Unwanted children are more likely to suffer abuse and grow up to be criminals in adolescence. Legalized abortion led to fewer unwanted babies. Crime rates began to fall exactly 18 years after Roe.

Conservative columnists have called the theory morally repugnant and smelling of eugenics — the idea that society should improve the human stock by limiting "undesirables." Many pro-choice liberals have given these notions a wide berth because of their racial implications.

Levitt insists that his intention was simply to show a correlation between the availability of abortion and crime, and not make any judgment for or against abortion. He further contends that race was not part of his study. And, in any case, while blacks may have a higher abortion rate, whites have far more abortions.

Oddly, South Dakota could find itself experimenting with a kind of eugenics in reverse. Well-to-do women would have the option to obtain abortions in Minneapolis, while the destitute would be forced to stay home and have babies they can't care for.

A total ban on abortion could accelerate South Dakota's ongoing brain drain. In recent years, many young South Dakotans have taken advantage of their state's fine education system, then decamped for lands of opportunity. Support for abortion rises with education levels, and women with prospects might not want to stay in a place that has banned abortion even in cases of rape. There are bumper stickers about that, too.

Perhaps most South Dakotans don't care if their state gets a reputation for being outside the Western cultural mainstream. I suspect a lot of them do. Despite the many victories claimed by "pro-life" forces, polls show an unchanging two-thirds of Americans in support of Roe v. Wade. It is sad to think this, but the anti-abortion legislation may simply reflect the fact that there weren't enough progressive young people left in South Dakota to stop it.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

2006, The Providence Journal Co.

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