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Rapid Citians on both sides of the Roe v. Wade decision marked its 37th anniversary Friday with prayers and renewed promises to try to influence public opinion on the divisive issue.

The long-simmering abortion culture wars date back to the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a woman's right to seek an abortion during early pregnancy. It heated up again this year, some say, when it became part of the national debate over health insurance reform.

"Yes, the issue of abortion has taken on a new framework of discussion...," Bishop Blase Cupich of the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City said. "But I think that every year that passes where it's legal to take the life of a child in the womb is significant and a tragedy."

Abortion-rights supporter Karen Miller agreed that abortion-related issues escalated in 2009 for many reasons: the health care reform debate, the election of an abortion-rights president and the May 2009 murder of George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed late-term abortions. Scott Roeder's murder trial began Friday.

"I think it was a surprisingly high-profile year for abortion, with the murder, and with some hope that the election of a Democratic president and a Democrat-controlled Congress would result in a loosening of federal restrictions on abortion funding," Miller said. "What we got instead was a tightening of those restrictions ... and none of the expected gains, from a pro-choice standpoint."

Those restrictions, and the groundswell of opposition to subsidizing elective-abortion coverage with taxpayer funds that developed around health care reform, were gratifying to Al Carlson.

Carlson and other Citizens for Life supporters gathered at a candlelight prayer vigil Friday evening near Baken Park to protest the Roe v. Wade decision.

"I was surprised at how so many people reacted to the fact that abortion, in some form, was probably going to appear in health reform legislation. That was a very encouraging sign," Carlson said. "People seem to be more aware of abortion and more aware of its extremely negative impact on society."

A Pew Forum poll released in October showed that opposition to legal abortion is growing in the U.S. The number of Americans who tend to support abortion rights (47 percent) and those who express opposition to abortion on demand (44 percent) is closer than ever.

Those shifts in public opinion trouble Miller, a spokeswoman for the Women's Health Committee of Democracy in Action.

"I'm worried about the trends," she said. "I see pieces here and there and everywhere."

She said that shifting landscape makes it even more important that abortion-rights supporters pay attention politically.

"I think women of childbearing age are politically asleep, and we old women can only do so much," she said.

Miller emphasized the need for education on two fronts: science-based sex education in schools and "efforts to mobilize younger women to make them understand that they may lose what they take for granted, which is a full range of reproductive choice."

Cupich said education is what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops brought to the abortion-related aspects of the health reform debate when it encouraged Catholics to contact their congressional representatives.

"We're not a political party or a PAC, but we want people to get involved," he said.

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The conference's position was that the Senate bill provided a "window of funding" for abortion coverage that the House version did not.

"We always want to encourage people to be involved in public debate on significant issues, and we feel our job is mainly to teach, ... to be better informed as participants in these matters," he said.

Roe v. Wade opponent Kathryn Dennis spent two hours in prayer at her Catholic church to mark the Roe anniversary. She also attended the candlelight vigil, as she has many times over the past 37 years.

"I am such a naïve person, I guess. When that passed all those years ago, it was something I couldn't believe. I thought, that won't last. Women won't want to kill their babies. And here it is 37 years later," she said.

Cupich said he encourages civil conversation that seeks common ground, whether in health care reform or in reducing the number of abortions.

"I've always been in favor of discussion, because I know we have truth on our side," he said. "We don't want to be marginalized in the public discussion by folks who are not very responsible and are not civil in the debate."

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or


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