Why won't they talk about abortion rights?

Elizabeth Schulte looks at why the right wing has been able to gain ground on the issue of abortion.

Marching for abortion rights in San Francisco in January 2005 (Josh On | SW)

IT WAS the elephant in the room. But there was almost no mention of it at all--just the barest passing reference by Joe Biden--in last night's vice presidential debates.

Abortion. Why is it that the Democrats, the party that is supposed to stand up for women's right to choose abortion, try so hard to keep that fact a secret from the rest of us?

This year's election ought to be the perfect time to raise the issue of abortion rights, especially with the Republican vice presidential candidate being Sarah Palin.

There are a lot of scary things about Palin, but among the scariest is her extremist stance on abortion--ban it entirely, even in the case of rape or incest. In a 2006 gubernatorial debate in Alaska, Palin was asked her attitude if her own 14-year-old daughter was raped. Her opponent, Anthony Knowles, answered, "I would love her and support her no matter what decision she made." Palin said, " I would choose life."

Of course, it's not just Palin. John McCain chose her as a tribute to the Christian Right, anti-choice party base whose support his campaign needs. And Palin is right in line with McCain's own view that Roe v. Wade--the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal--should be overturned. And not only that, but, as the McCain-Palin Web site states, "the reversal of Roe v. Wade represents only one step in the long path toward ending abortion."

This should be time for Democrats to take the offensive on women's right to safe, legal and accessible abortion. But they haven't.

Instead, the stance of the Democratic Party establishment has been downright conciliatory on women's right to choose. In the lead-up to the national convention, party leaders even discussed changing the Democratic platform to be more inclusive toward anti-choice forces.

But how can a party that is supposed to be pro-choice be "inclusive" toward people who want to take women's right to abortion away? There are two sides to this question--you are either for woman to have the access to abortion, or you're not.

This feeble stance is nothing new, though. For decades, the Democratic Party has gone out of its way to soften its image on abortion. Unfortunately, the organizations that are supposed to defend women's reproductive rights--like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and NARAL Pro-Choice America--have done little to pressure the Democrats to do otherwise.

Placing greater and greater focus on getting Democrats elected, these groups have spent less and less time making the basic argument about why abortion is a right that must be protected.

In return for this support, organizations like NOW have asked for very little in return from Democrats--and that's exactly what they've gotten.

In state after state over the past three decades, legislation has passed the restricts women's access to abortion--from parental consent laws to mandatory waiting periods to bans on late-term abortion procedures.

But in addition to the myriad ways in which women's access to abortion has been limited, the lack of an outspoken and organized voice in support of a woman's right to choose has had another effect--on the way many Americans view abortion.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 37 percent of those polled felt abortion "should be generally available to those who want it," 42 percent favored "stricter limits," and 19 percent said it should not be permitted. The pollsters reported that the results showed a slight increase in support for the right to safe, legal abortion, which is encouraging. But at the same time, these polls also reflect the all-too-common idea that abortion is something that should be limited.

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THE TRUTH is that the conservatives have won ground in this debate over the years, with a well-organized and uncompromising campaign to vilify abortions, the doctors who perform them, and the women who have them.

One key part of the anti-abortion argument has been to elevate a fetus over the life of a living, breathing woman. In their propaganda and the legislation that they've put forward, such as the Unborn Child Protection Act, the anti-choice movement claims that it is fighting for the "rights of those who cannot fight for themselves."

One tactic was charging women with crimes against the fetuses they were carrying--like a woman in Michigan whose newborn was taken from her because she had taken Valium pills to ease the pain of injuries she'd received in a car accident, or the Wyoming woman who went to the police to seek protection from her abusive husband, but was instead charged with felony child abuse because she was allegedly drinking while pregnant.

These arguments aren't "pro-child." They're simply anti-women.

The argument for defending, and extending, access to abortion is simple. It should be a woman's decision, and hers alone, what she does with her body. No government, religious institution, politician, partner or family member should have the right to tell her what to do in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.

In a society that truly respected women and their ability to make decisions for themselves, abortion would not be viewed as something to be "overcome," but as a necessary medical procedure. A woman's ability to make the decision all by herself would be respected, and that would be the end of it.

Despite the avalanche of anti-choice propaganda, a majority of people still support Roe v. Wade. A 2007 Harris poll showed support for Roe at 56 percent, up 7 percent from the year before.

That's because the lies about abortion fly in the face of the actual experience of much of the population--of the millions of women who actually have abortions, and have had them in some form, from the beginning of time.

The Democratic candidates would prefer not to say anything about abortion--and let the pro-choice forces loyally support them while they leave the door open for anti-choice forces to support them, too. In other words, the right for a woman to make a life-transforming decision about obtaining an abortion is, for the leaders of the Democratic Party, nothing more than a political bargaining chip.

Obviously, the Democrats aren't interested in really standing up for abortion rights. The only way to turn the tide of public sentiment on abortion is to make the argument for a woman's right to choose, no matter what the politicians are saying.

As Susan Faludi wrote in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, "In the past, women have proven that they can resist in a meaningful way, when they have had a clear agenda that is unsanitized and unapologetic, a mobilized mass that is forceful and public, and a conviction that is uncompromising and relentless."

In other words, no apologies. In one of her recent interviews with CBS's Katie Couric, Palin said she was "unapologetic" about her opposition to abortion. Our side needs to show its own determination to defend a woman's right to choose.