Controversial South Dakota "Crisis Pregnancy Center" Activist Leslee Unruh

MORE's award-winning profile of South Dakota anti-abortion activist Leslee Unruh.

By Amanda Robb
Leslee Unruh
Photograph: Photo by Nathaniel Welch

South Dakota has just become the first state in America to pass a law requiring women seeking abortions to first receive couseling at a "crisis pregnany center" such as Leslee Unruh's Alpha Center.

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."


First Published April 6, 2010

Share Your Thoughts!


Sheri Hall07.06.2011

Figures, most zealots are hypocrites and liars. Besides, legal abortion is not the problem, making it illegal will only make it dangerous, not stop it from happening.

ann 06.11.2011

I have to say some of this article really made me angry. First off, it has already been shown that abstinence only training does not keep folks from having sex, especially teens and young adults. They are going to have sex, it is far better they have accurate information instead of "just say no"...didn't work with drugs and won't work with sex. Secondly, folks seem to think that making abortion illegal means abortions will stop, wrong. Once more women who find themselves in this situation will be forced back into the alley or into the hands of poorly trained providers and once more women will die. If you do not believe in abortion then by all means feel free to not have one but do not force your beliefs down other people's throats.

Alice Green04.20.2011

I am glad to check a great blog. I don't understand what they did. I am a 39 year old women dating a younger man who is 27 younger man. We met on a cougar dating site: He often ask me out. I am enjoying my life.

Donna Cavanagh04.05.2011

This was a great article. I liked that you painted this woman in a fair light. I understand the need to do this, but I hate this woman's platform and I hate that she has been able to influence legislation that is so blatantly detrimental to women.

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