MORE’s profile of abstinence-only education and anti-abortion activist Leslee Unruh won a 2009 Maggie Award for Excellence in Media from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
I first learned of Leslee Unruh two years ago, when I went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to write an article about the state’s one remaining abortion clinic. For me, it was not just another story. In 1998 my beloved uncle, Bart Slepian, an obstetrician-gynecologist who performed abortions, was murdered by an antiabortion activist who shot him through a window in his upstate New York home. My sorrow knocked my political convictions out cold. I didn’t give a damn about choice anymore; I was just desperate for everyone to stop raging about it. And inside Sioux Falls’s nearly windowless (for obvious safety reasons) Planned Parenthood clinic, I blurted out a question that was really not journalistically appropriate but one that pressed hard on my heart.
"Can’t you find some middle ground? Some way to stop the fighting?"
Kate Looby, the clinic director, sighed. She had tried, she said, to work with the other side. Teen pregnancy prevention programs. Contraception initiatives. "But with Leslee, it’s always no, no, no."
She was talking about Leslee Unruh, 54, executive director of the Vote Yes for Life campaign, which led the fight to ban abortion in South Dakota, and president of Abstinence Clearinghouse, a Sioux Falls-based nonprofit with 4,000 affiliates in 50 states and 105 countries. Looby’s boss, Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, explained that the politicians I planned to meet with merely wrote and passed laws; it was Unruh who drummed up the popular support and often turned that legislation into political manna. She was the mother of the strategy to depict women who have had abortions as living victims of the procedure, midwife of the push to force public schools to swap biology-based sex-ed for chastity lectures, and nurturer of the program that replaced condoms with "Just don’t do it!" campaigns in HIV-ravaged regions of Africa.
THE MOST INFLUENTIAL WOMAN I’d never heard of, Unruh was largely credited with the passage of the nation’s most restrictive antiabortion law, the Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act, in March 2006. When it was overturned by South Dakota’s voters in a referendum eight months later, Unruh was undaunted. "We’ll never, never, never give up," she told supporters. And she hasn’t: An amended version of the bill — one with exceptions for rape, incest, and maternal health — will be on the state’s ballot in November. Both sides see it as a direct, and potentially successful, challenge to Roe v. Wade.
"Regardless of how they present it, the reality is that this will be the most sweeping ban in the nation, leaving the majority of women in South Dakota without access to safe, legal abortion," Stoesz says. "It was designed as a vehicle to go straight to the Supreme Court."