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My dinner with Napoli

Nancy Goldstein - Raw Story columnist
Published: Wednesday March 29, 2006

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I wasn't sure whether to use chorizo or bacon in my paella last weekend, so I called South Dakota state senator Bill Napoli and asked him to make my decision for me.

Stephanie McMillan inspired me to contact Bill -- one of the most vocal supporters of the new state ban on virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. McMillan's brilliant cartoon, which has been making the rounds of the blogosphere, lampoons Napoli's conviction that women can't be trusted to make decisions about our own bodies -- and conveniently provides his work and home numbers.

Even if you don't recognize Bill Napoli's name, you've probably heard of him. He's the South Dakota state senator who created a big splash on the PBS NewsHour earlier this month with his detailed -- some might say prurient -- description of an "acceptable rape" that would merit an exemption from the state's abortion ban.

I'll say this for the senator: he returned the message I left on his home machine promptly, which would have been very useful except that he said he'd never heard of paella (or Google, when I suggested that he look up some recipes online). Even my description of the dish's primary ingredients didn't seem to help him with my chorizo/bacon quandry. So we shelved the paella dilemma and moved on to the abortion ban.

I wish I could tell you that our heart-to-heart convinced Bill that women like Michelle, who appeared on the same PBS NewsHour segment, should also have the option of a safe, legal abortion. Michelle doesn't fit Bill's lurid criterion of a religious virgin who "was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it." She's just a woman in her 20s with a low-paying job and two children who drove five hours to the state's only abortion clinic (it operates one day a month, and the provider is flown in by Planned Parenthood Minnesota).

But no such luck. Our 10-minute discussion was mostly a more polite version of the kinds of exchanges that pro-choice and anti-choice folks have been having for several decades now.

Bill asked me if it wasn't time for a civilized nation like ours to end abortion. I countered that the US is almost entirely alone among so-called "first world" nations in its anti-choice fervor: that even France, a Catholic country, makes it easier for a woman to obtain a safe, legal abortion on demand. And then I reminded him that murder by a spouse or boyfriend is the #1 cause of death among pregnant women and asked him why he didn't express his concern for the lives of women and children by convening a task force on domestic violence.

Or perhaps, I suggested, he could look into the causes of South Dakota's unusually high infant mortality rate. Could it, perhaps, have to do with the 12% uninsurance rate among South Dakotans? But no. Bill blamed the state's high infant mortality rate on its Native American population, saying "We've got a sovereign nation living within our borders, and there's not a darned thing we can do about them."

I decided to ask Charon Asetoyer, the Executive Director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center on the Yankton Nakota Reservation in South Dakota, about Bill's comments.

"It's pure nonsense that a state legislator would think there's nothing he can do to benefit Native Americans," Asetoyer said. "The high infant mortality rate on reservations is due to devastating poverty. Yet the state has not passed any laws in the last several years that would boost any of the health or education programs within the reservation community. As for tribal sovereignty, the only time the state wants to recognize it is when it benefits the state, as in this instance when it allows Senator Napoli to opt out of an intelligent response."

In our remaining minutes, I learned that Bill doesn't believe that women don't always have a choice about whether or not to have protected sex. He swore that I was the first woman ever to tell him that sometimes contraception fails. And he doesn't believe that women who do choose to abort take that decision very seriously and aren't happy about it. He claims that 99% of the 800+ abortions that were performed in South Dakota last year were "abortions of convenience" -- whatever the heck that means.

Of course, Bill's perfectly cognizant of the facts. But so are his fellow legislators who sat on the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion this past fall. (In an earlier article, I documented Lynn Paltrow's expert testimony before the SDTFSA.) The SDTFSA heard from 30 witnesses on both sides of the debate: still, it chose to ignore all pro-choice testimony and even the suggestions of its few pro-choice members in its final report, which recommended the ban.

In a rebuttal released this week (you can read the excellent summary here), two South Dakota grandmothers who co-chair Democracy in Action's Women's Autonomy Group decry the findings of the SDTFSA's report. "We sat through all the SDTFSA's meetings," said Karen Miller, who co-authored the rebuttal with Barbara Chapman. "So we are stunned that the report omits the testimony of dozens of legal and medical experts who spoke in support of keeping abortion a safe and legal option."

One classic example of the bias that permeates the SDTFSA report is its use of the medically inaccurate notion of "fetal pain" despite expert testimony to the contrary by a fetal anesthesiologist. Dr. Mark Rosen testified before the committee that fetuses do not develop the neurological capacity to feel pain until the 23rd week. This medical fact should have rendered any discussion of "fetal pain" moot in South Dakota, where no pregnancies are terminated after the second trimester. Instead, the SDTFSA's report simply suppresses Rosen's testimony.

My take on this is that the politicians who supported this ban and signed it into law care a lot more about raising their political profiles by challenging Roe v. Wade than they do about the lives of the women, children, and families they're supposed to serve in South Dakota.

Like Napoli, they only saw what they wanted to see, relying on medically unsubstantiated testimony and outside political operatives in their quest to score points with the national anti-choice right at the expense of their constituents. Read the rebuttal and see for yourself.

Better yet, call Senator Napoli and read it to him.

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Nancy Goldstein's next column will appear on Thursday, April 13th. She can be reached at goldstein.nancy@gmail.com.