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How liberals gave ground to the right
Women's declining right to abortion

Review by Nicole Colson | February 27, 2004 | Page 9

William Saletan, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. University of California Press, 2003, 327 pages, $29.95.

TODAY, ABORTION is unavailable in more that 90 percent of counties in the U.S. More states have parental consent laws, mandatory waiting periods and bans on funding for poor women than at any time since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973. But as an instructive book by journalist William Saletan shows, much of the cause of the rightward shift on abortion rights is due to the strategy and politics of the mainstream pro-choice movement itself.

Saletan begins the story in Arkansas in 1986 during the administration of then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Hoping to defeat an amendment to the state constitution that would ban poor women from receiving state funding for abortions--which Clinton refused to take a stand on--the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the National Organization for Women (NOW) and others repackaged the abortion issue to give it broader appeal to conservatives upset by "government intrusion."

Pollster Harrison Hickman, a key NARAL strategist, helped craft this "pragmatic" strategy that NARAL and other mainstream pro-choice groups would embrace in the years ahead. "One-third of our target voters said they were definitely less likely to support the amendment after hearing: 'The government is threatening to take away our right to own a gun and telling us where to send our children to school, and now they want to say that women can't have abortions--even if they're raped,'" reported Hickman. As a result, NOW shifted their campaigns to the right, even purging their literature of references to their own organizations.

They exploited negative stereotypes about women on welfare, with a cynical NOW radio ad telling voters that if the amendment passed, they would end up subsidizing poor women's pregnancies and children. But as Saletan shows, while NARAL was able to distill this anti-government "Who decides? You or them?" message into a few victories, the overall effect has been disastrous for abortion rights as a whole.

With every new battle, Saletan shows how the pitfalls of the narrow "pragmatic" road became even deeper--and how the mainstream pro-choice movement retreated further from building a real grassroots movement for choice. In 1989, as the Supreme Court was hearing the Webster case, for example, NARAL warned its members not to talk about issues like feminism, civil rights or labor issues.

"AVOID LOADED RHETORIC--You may actually believe it, just don't say it," read one memo to NARAL staffers. "Using phrases such as 'don't put women back in their places,' 'a woman's body is her own to control,' 'having a child limits a woman's choices,' etc., just triggers the hostility so many people feel about women's issues."

This conservative strategy also led the pro-choice movement to accept the "lesser-evil" of Democratic candidates--even as their party stance on abortion tended to become increasingly conservative. So in 1989, while conservative Democrat Doug Wilder was running for Virginia governor, the state NOW chapter and NARAL backed him--despite the fact that Wilder supported instituting a parental consent law.

NARAL went even further, backing conservative Democrats like Georgia's Zell Miller over more liberal ones--if the pro-choice candidate wasn't considered "viable." And when the Democrats betrayed them, the mainstream pro-choice movement failed to mobilize in protest--as, for example, when Clinton failed to pass a promised freedom of choice act and betrayed poor women around the world by deferring family planning funding in exchange for Congress paying $1 billion in fees the U.S. owed to the United Nations.

Curiously enough, in the October 1 issue of the American Prospect, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Kate Michelman praised Saletan's book: "His thorough reporting shows how our movement cemented a clear public majority for what is an essentially conservative position...He revisits the success of our compelling message: 'Who Decides? You or Them?'"

Maybe Michelman read a different book. What Saletan does show is that the appeal to "privacy" and the strategy of lobbying Democrats has helped move the debate so far to the right that, while the mainstream pro-choice movement might win a battle or two, they've lost huge ground on abortion rights overall.

Unfortunately, Saletan sometimes writes as though ordinary voters are little more than dupes of politicians and interest groups. He also fails to consider the impact a grassroots fight for choice that stands on the principle that women alone should control their bodies could have had over the past decades.

Still, for abortion rights supporters, the real lesson of the book is crystal clear. If we are to regain any of the ground lost since Roe v. Wade was first won 31 years ago, we have to stop apologizing for abortion rights and take our movement into the streets.

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