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MERCER: Friends remember Ruth Karim

Bob Mercer

Ruth Karim left this world Feb. 10 at age 82. Her funeral Feb. 16 at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Pierre marks the final passing of one of the co-founders of the South Dakota Right to Life organization.

What she helped start in 1979, and helped keep running for several decades into the early 1990s, is anything but insignificant.

That is because South Dakota is a place where Republicans win most November elections for the Legislature and governor. And Republicans who oppose legalized abortion tend to win most of the June primary elections for those seats.

That was proven again last spring. Several incumbent legislators lost last June in Republican primaries where they faced challengers who were clearly stronger opponents of abortion.

South Dakota Right to Life isn't a partisan organization. Some of the Democrats in the Legislature are on the pro-life side of the abortion dilemma. Each election season, South Dakota Right to Life grades candidates by their pro-life records and positions, not on their party affiliation.

Ruth Karim and Kitty Werthmann were friends in Pierre when they became co-founders of South Dakota Right to Life. The organization was officially registered with the secretary of state as a domestic nonprofit on June 29, 1972.

It remained in good standing through 1981 and became inactive after that. Its successor is the The South Dakota Right to Life Committee Inc., which filed its paperwork on March 20, 1982.

Today its registered agent -- point of contact, in legal terms -- is Mansour Karim, husband of Ruth. He was the organization's state treasurer when he took the additional role in 2006. Currently he holds both titles.

Ruth was executive director from 1972 through 1991, when she and Mansour officially retired. Both remained very involved in Right to Life. She served at one point as secretary for the National Right to Life Committee.

Kitty Werthmann sat down for a talk a few days ago about her friend and ally. "It's a great loss," she said about Ruth's death.

Werthmann recalled how South Dakota Right to Life came to be. "New York legalized abortion and we thought it would soon be coming to other states, and we wanted to protect our state," she said.

They received "a lot of help" from Jay Duenwald of Hoven. "He was actually the grandfather of South Dakota Right to Life. He was way ahead of us," Werthmann said.

At the same time something big was coming from the federal level. On March 22, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was sent from Congress to the states for ratification. Abortion wasn't mentioned in the ERA. But Karim and Werthmann thought its passage would essentially lock abortion rights into the U.S. Constitution.

Ten months later, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in most instances.

"That really gave us a jolt. We did not expect that, that soon," Werthmann said.

That left them with two fronts where they needed to fight for their side. Congress provided a seven-year period for states to act on the ERA. Three-quarters -- 38 of the 50 -- of the states were needed for ratification.

"Ruth and I, we had a meeting. I took the ERA, she kept Right to Life," Werthmann said.

The South Dakota Legislature was very receptive to the ERA. Sen. Grace Mickelson, D-Rapid City, was the prime sponsor of the resolution that next winter, with the Senate voting 22-13 and the House voting 43-27 for final passage on Feb. 5, 1973.

The amendment said: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Werthmann had gone to battle on behalf of Phyllis Schlafly's group called StopERA, which later became Eagle Forum, a pro-family conservative organization. Werthmann fought for six years to reverse South Dakota's ratification.

She succeeded when the Legislature in 1979 passed a resolution sponsored by Sen. Bill Ripp, R-Dimock, that placed an end date of March 22, 1979, on South Dakota's ratification. Four other states in some way rescinded their earlier ratifications of the ERA. Rescissions continue to be a point of dispute nationally.

Congress later extended the ratification period to June 30, 1982. But the two-thirds threshold wasn't reached. While public attention focused on the ERA fight, Ruth Karim in her soft-spoken, patient way went community to community working to organize local groups against legalized abortion.

"She faithfully ran the Right to Life office in Pierre, worked diligently, late hours at night, with no salary. She put her whole into it. Ruth was a remarkable woman, very intelligent, very dedicated," Werthmann said.

"She was a wonderful wife, raised a wonderful family and stuck to her guns at South Dakota Right to Life until she couldn't anymore."

Today, at 87, Werthmann still lobbies at the Legislature daily for Eagle Forum. She has often worked at the grassroots level and in the background at the Legislature on passing abortion restrictions. As she talked about Ruth, her voice remained steady, but the tears in her eyes told part of the story, too.

The reach of anti-abortion politics in the South Dakota Republican Party was on display a weekend ago during a state central committee meeting.

One of the speakers was Dana Randall of Aberdeen, who served as South Dakota Right to Life vice president in 2004 and 2005 and as president in 2006 and 2007. He was chosen in 2008 as the South Dakota Republican Party's national committeeman.

Dan Hargreaves of Stickney, the current president of South Dakota Right to Life, nominated Craig Lawrence of Sioux Falls to be the new chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party last weekend.

The nomination by Hargreaves, who stated to the crowd his position role as Right to Life president, was a clear signal of endorsement for Lawrence as a pro-life conservative.

A few years ago at the annual convention of South Dakota Right to Life, a photo was taken of Ruth Karim and Jay Duenwald side by side to honor their pioneer work. As a volunteer lobbyist, Duenwald had led the first push for a state ban against abortion during the early 1990s. That attempt failed by a single vote in the Senate. For many years before and after, he served on the National Right to Life Committee.

In 2006, the National Right to Life Committee honored him for seven years as its vice president and for his 15 years as member of its board of directors. During the past decade South Dakota voters twice rejected abortion bans. One had passed the Legislature but was rejected on the ballot. Two years later, an attempt taken straight to the ballot was defeated, too.

No longer is South Dakota Right to Life the only visible opponent of legalized abortion. But because of the ever-widening influence of the anti-abortion movement, the Legislature gradually achieved many restrictions on access to abortion, and defined life as starting at conception.

"I always wished Ruth could have lived to see Roe v. Wade overturned. That would have been my wish," Werthmann said.

Will it be some day? "I don't know," she said. "It's in God's hands. Sometimes in history, the pendulum swings over."