But this legislation isn’t the only weapon in Unruh’s antichoice arsenal. An "informed consent" law she championed in 2005 requires South Dakota doctors to tell patients that abortion can cause numerous problems, including depression and sterility. Initially found to be unconstitutional, this law has also resurfaced. In June the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s ruling that blocked enforcement of the law; the case is now back in district court for further wrangling. On another front, Unruh’s pro-abstinence activism has helped reap a record $200 million in federal funding; this fall, that money will be spent teaching public school students that all sex outside of marriage is likely to have harmful consequences — a view that Unruh herself routinely promulgates.
Her sweeping rhetoric not only roils her opponents on the left, it also frustrates many on the right. Some conservative groups object to her "abortion hurts women" sloganeering (they prefer to keep the emphasis on the fetus); others worry that her over-the-top pronouncements will tarnish the abstinence brand. But there can be no denying that in the high places where laws are written, Leslee Unruh’s passionate message about sex and its consequences has been coming through loud and clear.
I HAD TO INTERVIEW UNRUH to report my story on the state’s only abortion clinic. But driving through the sleepy, slightly weedy residential Sioux Falls neighborhood where her headquarters is located, I held a secret hope. Like Unruh, the sniper who killed my uncle was obsessed with abortion and sexual purity. But he was crazy and violent. So I thought that by talking to a sane person who shared the killer’s values — who felt they were worth fighting for politically — maybe I could finally see my uncle’s death as something other than a giant, gaping hole in the middle of my family.
On display in the immaculate reception area of the converted ranch house were DVDs, books, and pamphlets about various abstinence-until-marriage programs; tiaras (apparently accessories for the "purity balls" at which fathers vow to help protect their daughters’ virginity); and a three-foot statue of a knight in shining armor. The receptionist seemed nervous to have a reporter on the premises. The moment I announced my name, a blond woman with a razor-edged bob and siren-red lipstick strode out with a battle-ready swagger that reminded me of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, or Helen Mirren playing Queen Elizabeth I. She stuck out a French-manicured hand and said, "Leslee Unruh."
Her office was low-lit and as orderly as the reception area. On the wall were a framed letter from George W. Bush, a photo of Unruh with Laura Bush, and an ode to an aborted fetus. We sat. We smiled. We exchanged pleasantries about her staff’s diligence in dusting. Then I asked why she refused to work with Planned Parenthood on teen pregnancy prevention programs or contraceptive initiatives. Leslee Unruh, the media’s go-to resource on abstinence, whose views have been solicited by MTV, CNN, ABC, NPR, and more than 100 newspapers and magazines, answered that Planned Parenthood wants to sexualize children and that taking oral contraceptives is like ingesting pesticides. She went on to tell me that masturbation is dangerous, that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, and that young girls should pledge to give themselves as a "wedding gift" to their husbands.
We were interrupted by the assistant warily reminding Unruh about another meeting. I had to go.
"What is your secretary so afraid of?" I asked.
"You," Unruh replied. "My staff didn’t want me to do this interview. They think you’ll do a hit piece. But I think if you’re not feeling persecuted, you’re not doing enough."
"Like Jesus?" I murmured.
Unruh’s smile disappeared. "The last article said I looked squishy." She bit the side of her mouth, which is something I do to stave off tears. I felt a jolt of sympathy, seeing how vulnerable she was to a journalist’s slight.