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Anti-abortionists on the offensive

June 13, 2003 | Page 3

THE ANTI-abortion bigots of the Bush administration are getting ready to celebrate. Last week, the House passed a measure to ban a late-term abortion procedure called "intact dilation and extraction"--misnamed "partial-birth" abortion by anti-abortionists.

To show how little they care about women's lives, the House refused to add an amendment that would have allowed exceptions in the event of "serious adverse health consequences" for a woman. Once some details are ironed out between the House and Senate, George W. Bush is expected to sign the ban into law--the culmination of a years-long effort to add this significant new restriction on a woman's right to choose abortion.

The intact dilation and extraction procedure is rarely used--only late in pregnancies, when the fetus is deformed or the woman's life is in danger. But that isn't the point for anti-abortionists.

The real aims behind their drive for a ban have always been wider. For one, the law is so poorly defined that it could outlaw other kinds of abortions. This is what happened in Wisconsin several years ago when passage of a similar ban led clinics to shut down for fear of breaking the new law if they performed any abortions.

Even without this effect, however, the federal "partial birth" ban will add to the anti-abortion climate. From the moment that the Supreme Court made abortion legal with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, anti-choice forces have chipped away at the right to choose.

The result 30 years later is that abortions are literally unavailable in 87 percent of counties in the U.S.--and access is limited in all sorts of ways in the rest.

Unfortunately, liberal groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the National Organization for Women failed to mobilize an active opposition to the federal ban. Their strategy is built around challenging the law in court--and organizing to get the vote out for Democrats in the 2004 election, so that a new president can repair the damage of the last several years.

Relying on the Democrats isn't paying off, however. The final House vote was 282 to 139--with a number of Democrats giving the Bush gang a hefty majority. In March, 16 Senate Democrats backed the White House in a vote on a similar bill.

Two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination--Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.)--ducked the Senate vote entirely. In the House, another top contender, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), also skipped out--after having voted for previous bills to enact "partial birth" bans.

And although Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio)--the self-proclaimed "movement" candidate for the nomination--voted against the ban last week, he supported it when he first arrived in Congress. Indeed, even as he voted against the legislation, Kucinich, who has a long anti-abortion record, said that the House "can do better to truly work to reduce the need for abortions while respecting freedom of choice."

This kind of defensive rhetoric gives up ground to the right wing--as if a woman's right to control her body has to be apologized for. Yet this argument became common even among sincere supporters of abortion rights during the 1990s--when the Clinton White House used pro-choice rhetoric to win votes, but in practice allowed the anti-abortionists to win one restriction after another.

We can't rely on politicians to defend abortion rights. We have to mobilize at the grassroots to build the kind of movement that puts pressure on Republicans and Democrats alike--and demands abortion rights without apologies.

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