Sarah Stoesz was standing in line at a car rental counter in Sioux Falls, S.D., when she felt the tectonic plates of abortion politics shift beneath her feet.

People around her were talking about abortion -- with strangers, in public. More shocking, they were embarrassed by the broad abortion ban their legislature had just passed. It made no exceptions for incest, rape or the health of the mother. "What kind of state are we from?'' one asked.

That was the moment when Stoesz, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, saw an opening in a fight long defined by those who see it as black and white.

What she heard that spring day in 2006 were the outraged voices of everyone else in the vast middle -- people who saw it as gray.

This month, Stoesz, 50, accepted a national award from Planned Parenthood New York City recognizing her role in defeating two South Dakota abortion bans -- one in 2006 and another in 2008. It also acknowledged that the gamble she took on the prairie -- staking out the middle ground on abortion -- paid off. Now, the national conversation is changing as well.

"That proved to be a successful strategy," said Katie Paris of Faith in Public Life, a Washington, D.C., religious group that studies social issues. "At the national level a lot of rhetoric has changed."

Tired of extremes

Today it's more clear that Stoesz and her allies in South Dakota may be at the leading edge of a bigger shift in the American mood -- a fatigue with extreme politics.

Since 2005, two national organizations --Faith in Public Life and Third Way --have been founded with a mission to end the country's culture wars. Both are probing public opinion on volatile issues such as gay marriage and immigration, both are trying to bring opposing sides together, and both are trying to move public opinion toward solutions instead of polarization.

Abortion is a case in point. National polling has found the same moral nuances that surfaced in the South Dakota campaigns. "The majority want to keep it legal,'' Paris said. "But the majority also see it as the taking of a life.''

President Obama also appears to be walking that path. He has eased, but not eliminated, limits on stem-cell research and supported birth control as a way of reducing abortions, rather than banning them on moral grounds.

"That reflects a new conversation and a new politics," Paris said.

But others in the abortion debate question that view. Scott Fischbach, executive director Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), said that as long as a group such as Planned Parenthood provides abortions, "They should have nothing to be proud of.''

Fishbach said he is skeptical of Stoesz's middle-ground strategy. "This is not a situation where Planned Parenthood figured out the silver bullet," he said. "We want them to think that they did. But the fact is, South Dakota is pro-life."

Long odds

When Stoesz flew to Sioux Falls in 2006, she hardly sensed the mood that would become crucial to her success. The South Dakota legislature's abortion ban allowed an exception only to save the life of the mother and was meant to challenge Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision on abortion.

In South Dakota, Planned Parenthood has only a toehold. One of its two clinics there provides about 800 abortions a year, but no South Dakota doctors will work there. Outside physicians fly in once a week.

Within days of the ban's passage, a small group of community leaders, politicians and liberal groups decided to challenge it at the ballot box. Planned Parenthood, they said, had to be on board. At first, Stoesz wasn't sure. "It felt very lonely," she said.

But when the governor signed the bill, it was as if someone flipped a switch. Stoesz's phone began ringing. "Strangers [were] calling and calling, saying, 'This is outrageous,'" she said in a recent interview.

Many in the reproductive-rights movement urged her to do what Planned Parenthood usually does: Go to court. Taking it to the voters in one of the most conservative states in the country would be costly and dangerous, they said.

Instead, Stoesz went with her gut. The ban had changed the conversation and created an opportunity to test public sentiment.

"We needed a movement," said Connie Lewis, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood. "We could not rely on a lawsuit to build a movement."

The group needed a new way to frame the debate, one that appealed to voters in the middle. "There are people on our side who don't want to do that. It's all or nothing," Stoesz said. "But that's not a winning strategy."

She raised $35,000 to test public views with a set of surveys and focus groups. Their findings: Many South Dakotans felt women shouldn't have the option of abortion simply to end an unplanned pregnancy. But victims of rape or incest? A woman whose health was at risk?

That was different. The ban lost by 10 points.

Two years later, Vote Yes for Life, which led the fight for the first ban, launched a second initiative. This time, they asked voters to approve a law that banned abortions except for rape, incest and the health of the mother. Leslee Unruh, the group's founder, said it was designed to stop the use of abortion for birth control. "We don't think of abortion as healthy for families," she said.

Polls showed voters supported it by a 28-point margin.

Kirsten Moore, president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project in Washington, D.C., remembers feeling despair after hearing one focus group dismiss the consequences of unintended pregnancies. But Stoesz never faltered, Moore said. She turned around and asked, "So what are we going to do?"

A married mom

What they did was turn to Tiffany Campbell, a South Dakota mother and day-care provider. In 2006 a rare medical condition forced her and her husband to choose between losing both of the twin boys she was carrying or aborting one to save the other.

"When you think of abortion, you don't think of a married woman who wants more children," she said recently.

Campbell joined the campaign, telling her story at rallies, in commercials, door to door. The campaign raised the spectre of government imposing heartbreaking decisions on families. Even some of the staunchest opponents of abortion had qualms about that.

The second ban was rejected by 10 points.

Unruh said her group lost because it got little support from other anti-abortion organizations and was outspent $2.5 million to $1.4 million.

"They confused people," Unruh said. "They never talked about abortion."

Some groups that oppose abortion did not support Unruh's iniatitive simply because the time was not right to challenge Roe vs. Wade, MCCL's Fischbach said.

But others saw a fundamental shift.

William Anderson, a political scientist at the University of South Dakota, said voters became engaged in morally complex questions. The anti-abortion side "assumed people would see this in black-and-white terms," he said. "But the grays were a lot grayer than anyone had ever imagined."

Paris, of Faith in Public Lilfe, said the South Dakota episode showed the country is more willing now to consider solutions. "We still have 1.3 milliion abortions in this country - we can agree that's not ideal," she said.

As Stoesz accepted her award in New York, she, too, acknowledged the debate might never end.

Even now, a proposed law in North Dakota would give a fertilized egg the legal status of a person. Her strategy? Respect the moral conflicts that are at the core of the debate. It worked in South Dakota. "And if we can win in South Dakota, we can win anywhere," she said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394