Wessington Springs, S.D. Circled around a living room, sipping coffee, five long-acquainted couples grappled with their stark differences on a topic they would have skirted in the past but now cannot avoid - abortion.
Like other South Dakotans, people in this tiny farming town are confronting a historic opportunity on Nov. 7. They'll sway a tortuous national debate by making a choice no statewide electorate has faced before: whether to approve a sweeping ban on virtually all abortions.
"None of us think abortion is a desirable thing," said Tom Dean, a family physician who put on the discussion along with his wife, Kathy. "But it's not a problem for government to solve by passing a rigid law."
Yet Lynn Ogren, who helps her husband run a sheep and cattle ranch, choked up with emotion as she explained her support for the ban.
"I value every child's life, whether it's from a rape or not," she told her friends. "Who's fighting for these kids?"
The measure would allow abortions only to save a pregnant woman's life. It makes no exception for other health concerns, or for cases of rape or incest; a doctor performing illegal abortions could face five years in prison.
The Legislature passed the law overwhelmingly in February, expecting it to be challenged in court and perhaps lead to a U.S. Supreme Court reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Instead of suing, opponents swiftly collected signatures to force a referendum; the law will be scrapped if voters reject it.
Each side depicts the other as dominated by out-of-state groups - and indeed such forces are active, viewing the vote as an unprecedented gauge of public sentiment on abortion. The Rev. Jerry Falwell has urged his conservative followers to donate in support of the ban; Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America have raised funds to oppose it.
"We're David, they're Goliath," contended Leslee Unruh, head of the campaign group supporting the ban. Parked outside her VoteYesForLife.com office in Sioux Falls were cars with a blunt bumper sticker: "The Killing Stops Here."
The most recent independent poll, in July, found 47 percent of voters opposed the ban, 39 percent favored it, 14 percent were undecided. When asked if they would approve a ban with exceptions for rape and incest, support rose to 59 percent.
Unruh, who had an abortion years ago that she now regrets, says momentum is turning as more voters hear her side's core message: Abortion hurts women. In the event of defeat, she vows to keep fighting.
Jan Nicolay, a former school principal and Republican state legislator, is co-chair of the campaign to keep abortion legal. She knows the stakes are high. "People from other states are telling me, 'You're in the limelight. Good luck. Please do everything you can to defeat it,'" she said.
Among her colleagues is Russ Tarver, a retired Methodist minister who signed a statement against the abortion ban along with 16 other ministers. "Some legislators were stunned to learn there were pastors on the other side of the issue," he said.
If the ban is defeated, anti-abortion activists might try again later with a milder version making exceptions for rape and incest, but the outcome would be heralded nationally as a major victory for abortion rights. If the ban is approved, several other state legislatures might follow South Dakota's example - building momentum for a possible Supreme Court review of Roe v. Wade.