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Pro-choice without apologies
The case for abortion rights

April 9, 2004 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON looks at what it will take to win abortion rights today.

"WE STAND for a culture of life in which every person counts and every person matters." So said George W. Bush--a man who had no problem bombing children in Iraq and Afghanistan--at a political fundraiser last week as he prepared to sign the Unborn Victims of Violence Act into law. This thinly veiled attack on abortion rights grants fetuses some of the same rights as people.

Bush's hypocritical rhetoric is common in the discussion of abortion rights. From politicians to the courts to the media, the debate around abortion today focuses almost exclusively on issues of morality--whether it's "selfish" to have an abortion, or when life begins.

But at its heart, the fight for abortion rights is about politics and class--a question of women's rights, and whether women should have the ability to control their own bodies and reproductive lives.

So even as anti-abortion rhetoric bombards women on a daily basis, abortion remains one of the most common surgical procedures in the U.S., with approximately 1.3 million performed every year. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, about one in three American women will have had an abortion by the time she reaches age 45.

Most women give three reasons for choosing abortion. Three-quarters say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or other responsibilities; about two-thirds say they can't afford a child; and half say they don't want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

Consider the society we live in--where 44 million people in the U.S. go without health care, there's little-to-no state-funded day care, and a majority of women work outside the home while also carrying the burden of child-rearing, housekeeping and cooking inside the home. Is it any wonder that so many women feel like they can't take on the financial burdens and responsibilities of an unwanted pregnancy?

But the Religious Right has never cared about the impact on individual women or their families. Conservatives have chipped away at women's access to abortion--starting with the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which cut federal Medicaid funding to poor women seeking abortions, and continuing with a host of parental consent laws, 24-hour mandatory "waiting periods" and bans on intact dilation and extraction (a procedure mislabeled "partial-birth" abortion).

Today, there is no access to abortion in approximately 90 percent of counties across the U.S. Nearly 25 percent of women obtaining abortions in 2000 had to travel more than 50 miles; and 8 percent were forced to travel more than 100 miles--a tremendous burden for poor and working-class women.

Although 90 percent of abortions are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy, nearly half of women who have abortions after the first trimester say that they were delayed because they needed time to raise money or get a Medicaid card, had to arrange transportation, were minors subject to state laws requiring parental involvement, had difficulty securing child care, or could not find an abortion provider.

For some, restrictions like these can mean death. In 1977, following passage of the Hyde Amendment, Rosie Jimenez, a mother of two, bled to death on the floor of a motel room after she crossed the border to Mexico because she could no longer afford an abortion in Texas.

After Indiana upheld a parental consent law in 1990, teenager Becky Bell--who felt that she couldn't disappoint her parents by telling them she was pregnant, and who had heard that the judge who could grant her a waiver was anti-choice--traveled across state lines for an abortion, developed complications and died. But these lives don't seem to matter to the politicians and anti-choice bigots who are so focused on "saving babies."

Even so, these restrictions and the hardships that they place on women pale in comparison to the horrors that women would endure if abortion became illegal once again. Every year prior to Roe v. Wade--the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal--tens of thousands of women were reduced to visiting back-alley abortionists or trying to induce their own abortions.

In Leslie Reagan's When Abortion Was a Crime, one woman recounts a college classmate who sought a back-alley abortion: "She was too frightened to tell anyone what she had done, so when she developed complications, [she] tried to take care of herself. "She locked herself in the bathroom between two dorm rooms and quietly bled to death."

A study of low-income women in New York City in the 1960s found that 8 percent had attempted to terminate a pregnancy by illegal abortion. Almost 38 percent said that a friend, relative or acquaintance had attempted to obtain an abortion. It's estimated that as many as 10,000 women died every year from complications from back-alley or self-induced abortions.

Don't trust the Democrats

UNDER CAPITALISM, women are expected to take on a double burden. Capitalism benefits from the fact that while most women work outside the home, they also perform important unpaid labor in the home, where they bear the brunt of child rearing and housework.

For this reason, the ability of women to control our reproductive lives is indispensable to the fight for equal rights for women generally. At the height of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, this fact was commonly recognized.

As the women's movement took inspiration from the Black Power and anti-Vietnam war movements, women across the country demanded measures like subsidized day care, equal pay for equal work and free abortion on demand. Demonstrations took place in hundreds of cities across the U.S., putting pressure on the Supreme Court, which finally granted women the right to choose abortion.

Today, however, many mainstream liberal women's groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women (NOW) have given up a lot of ground, often taking a defensive, apologetic position on abortion rights. So, for example, NARAL President Kate Michelman commented in 1994, "We've spent the last 25 years leading the fight for one right--the right to choose abortion. We had to make that fight...Now we've got to begin leading the fight to make abortion less necessary."

Instead of mobilizing to defend abortion rights, the leaders of these organizations have overwhelmingly pursued a strategy of alliances with "pro-choice" Democrats or waging battles in the courtroom. They did this even as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and other Democrats stabbed them in the back by supporting restrictions like parental consent laws and decreases in abortion funding.

Now, mainstream pro-choice groups are placing its hopes in John Kerry. Yet Kerry has already shown signs that he's moving from his fairly progressive past legislative record on abortion in order not to "alienate" mainstream voters. He skipped out on last fall's Senate vote on late-term abortions.

Kerry recently told a Fox News reporter that he supports parental notification laws with a judicial bypass--the same kind of law that led to Becky Bell's death--stating, "I think you've got to have some kind of responsible structure hopefully."

We can't rely on Kerry to protect our rights. NOW, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have called for a April 25 pro-choice "March for Women's Lives" in Washington, D.C.

The groups plan to promote support for the Democrats at this demonstration. But by mobilizing as large a turnout as possible among people who care about defending a woman's right to choose, we can take the first step in building a new fight for abortion rights.

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