The Republicans' all-out war on women

Elizabeth Schulte reports on the right's latest assault--and the stirrings of resistance.

Chicagoans march in the Walk for Choice called in response to federal anti-abortion legislationChicagoans march in the Walk for Choice called in response to federal anti-abortion legislation

ANTI-CHOICE Republicans are waging an all-out attack on women's right to abortion--in Congress, where the Republican-run House voted to strip funding from Planned Parenthood; and in individual states, where legislators are proposing bills so extreme that they could ban abortions altogether.

But supporters of abortion rights are starting to push back. Thousands took part in marches across the country on February 26, and abortion rights activists are beginning to strategize about how they can get our side organized, from the bottom up, to defend our right to choose.

Abortion rights supporters gathered in New York City and then joined forces with thousands more taking part in a rally in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers' inspiring struggle against their governor's plans to do away with collective bargaining rights. In Los Angeles, pro-choice supporters also joined in a Wisconsin solidarity march.

The connection is an important one--as politicians try to divert blame for the economic crisis away from themselves and onto working men and women, activists will need to come together to challenge the policies that attempt to divide us.

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ON FEBRUARY 18, the Republican-dominated House voted on a spending bill that includes, in the name of "fiscal responsibility," a provision that would eliminate federal support to Title X, the federal program that helps provide family planning services to poor women. Founded in 1970, Title X is the only federal grant program dedicated to providing comprehensive family planning and preventive health services, to low-wage families in particular.

In addition, House Republicans along with several Democrats voted for Indiana Rep. Mike Pence's "Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act," which would completely defund Planned Parenthood, even though it doesn't actually use government funds to provide abortions.

If Planned Parenthood's funds are taken away, millions of women, particularly poor and minority women, will find it infinitely more difficult to access all the health services it provides, which includes HIV tests, cancer screenings and birth control. It would also send a message that the services Planned Parenthood provides--which include providing necessary abortion services to millions of women--are open to attack.

The House resolution would also re-impose the global "gag" rule, which forbids giving federal money to groups that dare to discuss abortion as an option. Lifting the "gag" rule was one of the few abortion rights reforms that Barack Obama has carried out since taking office.

Provisions in last year's health care reform legislation--which Democrats said were necessary to entice the Republicans into voting for the bill--have already made it more difficult for women to find an insurance provider that covers abortions. But House Republicans are pushing bills that go even further.

House Bill 3, or what sponsors call the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," would eliminate tax breaks for private employers if the health plans they offer employees cover abortion services. It would also bar women who use a flexible spending plan to use pre-tax dollars for abortions.

By going well beyond current laws that prohibit using federal money for abortion services--and essentially making permanent the restrictions laid out in the Hyde Amendment, which denies Medicaid coverage to poor women seeking abortions and is approved each year in Congress--the bill's sponsors are sending a message that they want to eliminate poor women's access to abortion completely.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Chris Smith, revealed his utter contempt for women when he included in his original version a provision that redefined the longstanding exceptions that allow for funding for abortions in the case of rape or incest. Smith argued for substituting rape with "forcible rape"--suggesting that statutory rape did not apply, or that women would be in the position of having to prove that they had been raped against their will.

Smith was forced to get rid of the new definition of rape, but House Republicans are set on pushing the bill through, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) calling it "one of our highest legislative priorities." This is of little surprise, since within days of winning the November election, Boehner's chief of staff was meeting with anti-abortion leader Randall Terry.

"There is no cause more noble than the defense of human life," says Boehner. The new Speaker Boehner also considers this a bipartisan cause--the bill's cosponsor is Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski, and outrageously, several Democrats are supporting it.

Republican Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania has also sponsored House legislation that would allow hospitals that receive federal funds to decide to refuse to terminate a pregnancy--even it was necessary to save the woman's life. His bill would also bar women who receive insurance through state exchanges from buying abortion coverage, even if they use their own money.

Alongside the Republicans' assault on women seeking abortion and contraception is an attack on poor women struggling to provide for their families. In the interest of balancing the budget, the House Republicans' budget chops 10 percent from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.

The federal attack is matched, and in some cases magnified, in several states, where Republicans have declared open season on women's right to choose, and abortion providers.

No sooner had South Dakota legislators backed off a bill that would have legalized the killing of abortion providers, by allowing the use of the "justifiable homicide" defense for killings intended to prevent harm to a fetus, than Nebraska Republicans came up with the same bill. Unlike the South Dakota bill, which restricted the "justifiable homicide" of an abortion provider defense to a pregnant woman, her husband, her parents or her children, state Sen. Mark Christensen's bill would apply to anyone who killed an abortion provider.

Eight doctors have been murdered by anti-abortion terrorists since 1993, and many more have had attempts made on their lives. The man who killed Kansas Dr. George Tiller tried to use justifiable homicide in his trial. This proposed law draws a bigger target on abortion providers and their staffs.

In Georgia, Rep. Bobby Franklin is trying to pass legislation that would make abortion a felony, potentially punishable by death, and require that all miscarriages be investigated to ensure they were not caused by any "human involvement whatsoever."

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell is preparing to sign into law a bill that would require abortion clinics to meet the same requirements as hospitals--including arcane rules such as having a parking spot for every bed in the clinic. It's estimated that 17 of the state's 21 clinics would be forced to shut immediately, according to NARAL Pro-Choice VA.

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THE LEGISLATIVE attack on abortion rights being led at the federal level by House Republicans is largely considered too outrageous to make it through a Senate vote--but no one should underestimate the scale of the attack on women's right to choose or the right's determination.

The Republicans are acting with confidence that they can strip away women's rights, and with each outrageous attack, the terms of the public debate over abortion rights get shifted further to the right. This situation is made even worse by the fact that precious few Democrats are standing up to the assault.

The health care reform debate last year showed the pitfalls of "compromising" with conservatives, when leading Democrats gave up abortion coverage as a bargaining chip to win support from anti-choice Republicans (and Democrats) for a much-watered-down health care bill. Now the conservatives think they can take even more.

Outside the halls of Congress, though, are women and men who support the right for women to make their own choices about their bodies--and who oppose allowing the right to strip away access to abortion.

The debate being carried out in Congress over abortion and the "defense of human life" has very little to do with the real-life decisions that women make. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of pregnancies among women in the U.S. are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion.

The willingness of thousands to stand up and be counted in support of abortion rights on February 26 is a welcome public expression of a support for abortion rights that has been a relatively quiet over the last decade.

Like the Republican governor of Wisconsin, who sparked the protest of workers and students around the state, anti-abortion politicians could be awakening their own sleeping giant. But it will take work by grassroots activists to get to the next stage--by taking a visible, uncompromising and unapologetic stand in support of legal, safe and funded abortion for all women.