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Poor women already pay the price
Chipping away at the right to choose abortion

August 5, 2005 | Page 8

THE MAINSTREAM consensus about abortion is clear--the fewer, the better.

Bush and his right-wing allies--including Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, who once wrote that Roe v. Wade "was wrongly decided and should be overruled"--want to legal abortion overturned. But scores of leading Democrats--supposed supporters of choice--have also declared that abortion in the U.S. should be as rare as possible.

The fact is that abortions are already becoming more rare in the U.S. with every new restrictive law--and with tragic results for women. MICHELE BOLLINGER reports on the right wing's war to restrict a woman's right to choose.

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THE DEMOCRATS' slide to the right on the issue of abortion rights is starting to look more like an avalanche.

In January, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a speech that abortion is "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women...There is no reason why the government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance, so that the choice guaranteed under our Constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances."

WHERE TO FIND THE FACTS

For information about the right-wing assault on choice and the fight to protect abortion rights:

Keep Your Laws Off My Body

Save Roe

I'm Not Sorry: Celebrating the Right to Choose

For facts about abortion and contraception in the U.S.:

Alan Guttmacher Institute

National Abortion Federation

For information about the fight to protect the right to birth control and emergency contraception:

Fill My Pills Now!

Last week, a group of anti-choice Senate and House Democrats--with the support of the Democrats' elected leaders in Congress, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi--began pressing Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean to establish an official relationship with the anti-choice group Democrats for Life America. Democrats for Life is spearheading a resolution that anti-choice House Democrats are expected to introduce this fall, which calls for a 95 percent reduction in the number of abortions over the next 10 years.

In a May 2005 interview, Dean stated, "We'd like to make abortion rare." Dean even made the ridiculous claim that "abortions have gone up 25 percent since George Bush was president."

This, of course, has been proven false. A recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute revealed that abortion rates in the U.S. are at their lowest point since 1976.

For much of last few decades, the number of abortions performed in the U.S. each year was relatively consistent--about 1.5 million a year. But beginning at the turn of the new century, there was a significant drop--with only 1.29 million abortions performed in the U.S. in 2002.

Far from a step forward, the decline in abortions reflects the war on women's reproductive freedom--and how far the right wing has come in limiting women's choice.

Literally hundreds of restrictions imposed in different states around the country--bans on abortion at certain stages, parental notification laws and so on--have severely impeded women's access to abortion services.

Mandatory delays and mandatory counseling restrictions mean that, in practice, many women have to make multiple visits to a clinic in order to get the procedure. This impacts poor and working-class women most because they have to take multiple days off work--or, in many cases, find additional child care when they seek an abortion.

The 1976 Hyde Amendment, which ended federal funding for poor women's abortions, continues to make abortion inaccessible for poor and working-class women. The cost of an abortion ranges from $300 up to $2,000. And since poor women are more likely to face a delay in securing an abortion, they are also more likely to pay more for it.

All of these restrictions have put an increasingly impossible burden on women. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictions placing an "undue burden" on women were unconstitutional--but have since decided that existing restrictions don't qualify. Retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has received a great deal of praise from both conservatives and liberals, is author of the "undue burden" concept.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 87 percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion provider. In Mississippi, a state of almost 3 million people, there is only one abortion clinic left.

Mississippi is certainly an example of what it means for abortion to be "rare." Virtually every possible restriction on abortion has been passed there. The one remaining clinic, run by the Jackson Women's Health Organization, serves women in a state that is 36 percent African American--and where 18 percent of the population, and 27 percent of children, live below the poverty line.

According to Betty Thompson, a consultant for the clinic, its workload tripled once the Jackson facility became the only abortion provider in the state. Despite this, an unknown number of women are forced to find illegal ways to terminate pregnancies or bear children they don't want. "We're feeling the state of emergency around this issue," said Thompson.

According to Thompson, 60 percent of the clinic's clients are Black, most work minimum-wage level jobs, and they rarely have health insurance. "Our clients have already been through so much before they walk through the door," Thompson said. "Without a doubt, the burden on these women is huge."

The clinic has clients who travel hours by bus or car and must stay overnight because of the state's mandatory waiting period. "Some of them sleep in their cars outside the clinic," Thompson said.

And, of course, women entering the clinic are harassed daily by groups of anti-abortionists. The bigots call the police on women for the slightest reason. "If a client violates a parking ordinance, they call the cops," said Thompson.

The Jackson clinic is under siege--as are the women who seek abortion there. It is a living example of what it means for abortion to be rare--and a glimpse of the future for millions of other women if abortion rights are not defended from the right wing's attacks.

No return to the back alleys

THE ALAN Guttmacher Institute collects information from abortion providers and public health resources, regularly publishing statistics on women who acquire safe and legal abortions in the U.S. But this doesn't include the growing numbers of women who seek illegal abortions.

Today, there are countless cases of women who are denied abortion services, lied to by physicians, or without the financial means to obtain legal abortions. Some of these women who refuse to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term resort to medications, throw themselves down stairs, or--in a recent Texas case--try to cause a miscarriage by injuring themselves.

This is the real tragedy surrounding the issue of abortion today. It's also why the slogan 'No return to the back alley" is as crucial as it ever was.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, back-alley abortions will account for more than a small number of tragic cases. They will threaten the wellbeing of all women in this country, particularly poor and working class women.

In the years before Roe, women died from attempting abortions on their own, using anything from wire coat hangers to knitting needles. Women also acquired abortions from unqualified people in unsanitary conditions, like the back seat of a car or a back alley--leading to victims who died painful deaths from hemorrhaging and infection.

In 1964, 28-year-old Geraldine Santoro bled to death on the floor of a Connecticut hotel room after she and her former lover, Clyde Dixon, attempted an abortion on their own. Dixon fled the scene, and Santoro died alone.

Santoro's tragic death wasn't uncommon. Before Roe, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 died every year from illegal abortions. Poor women and women of color suffered the brunt of these horrors. Before 1970, when abortion was legalized in New York City, Black women accounted for 50 percent of deaths due to illegal abortions. Puerto Rican women accounted for 44 percent.

We can't let women return to the nightmare of the back alley.

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