Abortion: Every woman's right

In April 1992, abortion was thrust onto the center stage of U.S. politics again, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which threatened to severely restrict women access to abortion. In the lead-up to a mass protest planned for Washington, D.C. that month, Sharon Smith wrote this article looking at the state of women's right to abortion. This article first appeared in the April 1992 issue of Socialist Worker.

Thousands march in New York City to defend reproductive rights against legislative assaults on abortion and women's health services (J.B. Nicholas | Sipa)

IN THE early 1970s, the women's movement demanded that abortion be legalized as part of a larger movement for women's rights. It was clear that, without control over their own reproductive lives, women couldn't be the equals of men--no matter what advances women made in the job market or in higher education.

This is why socialists argue that all women deserve the right to control their own bodies, without interference from anyone. And in the 1970s, the women's movement demanded legal abortion as a right which should be available to all women--no matter how poor or how young, married or not.

Today, however, the entire terrain of the abortion debate has been shifted.

For more than a decade, the right to abortion has been steadily eroded, so that now the debate is over who should be able to pre-empt a woman's choice to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, laws now exist which allow parents, husbands or state governments to prevent pregnant women from having abortions.

Increasingly, abortion has been transformed from a right to a privilege, denied to ever greater numbers of women.

Thirty-seven states do not provide abortion funding for poor women's abortions. And 32 of these won't even fund abortions for poor women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or in cases of a severely deformed fetus.

Thirty-five states have laws requiring women under the age of 18 to notify or obtain the consent of a parent before they can have an abortion.

A Pennsylvania law now being reviewed by the Supreme Court requires married women to notify their husbands in order to get an abortion. This law also requires that women receive counseling on "alternatives" to abortion and then be required to wait 24 hours before they are allowed to have an abortion.

And Louisiana, Utah and Guam all have passed laws virtually banning abortion.

These cases haven't yet reached the Supreme Court, but when they do, they will provide the Supreme Court with the opportunity to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion a legal right.

The legal obstacles that already exist affect millions of women across the U.S., who musts travel to another state to get a legal abortion or are unable to get a legal abortion or are unable to get one at all because they can't afford it,

This is why socialists argue that, while we must fight to prevent Roe v. Wade from being overturned, it isn't enough to simply keep abortion legal. It is legal now, but inaccessible to millions.

The Freedom of Choice Act now before Congress should be viewed in this light--an important first step in restoring abortion rights in the U.S. The Freedom of Choice Act would guarantee legal abortion at the national level, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

At the same time, the Freedom of Choice Act doesn't even mention the issue of restoring abortion funding for poor women, nor does it explicitly guarantee the right to choose for women under age 18.

But until we win back those abortion rights that have already been lost, abortion will continue to be a privilege rather than a right, in the U.S.

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Abortion is a class issue

Whatever restrictions are placed upon legal abortion, all women do not suffer equally. In fact, some women don't suffer at all. Social class has always been the deciding factor in the right to choose an abortion.

Wealthy women can always afford access to abortion, even if it once again becomes illegal.

In the century during which abortion was illegal, rich women could still obtain abortions because they had the money and the private physicians, which enabled them to travel or get around the law. Yet those women must desperately in need of the right to choose tend to be young and poor.

The single most common reason why women have an abortion is not being able to afford the cost of raising a child.

Poor and working-class women account for the vast majority of abortions.

Race is also an important factor in the U.S., where one in every three Blacks lives below the government's official poverty level.

Black women and other minority women are more than twice as likely as white women to seek abortions. Similarly, when abortion is illegal or not funded, Black and other minority women suffer disproportionately. Before 1970, when abortion was legalized in New York City, 80 percent of all women who died from botched illegal abortions were Black or Puerto Rican.

Since the mid-1970s, when attacks on abortion rights began in earnest, poor women have been the most frequent targets.

In 197m Congress initiated the first attack on abortion, when it passed the Hyde Amendment, which eliminated federal abortion funding for women on Medicaid.

Barely a month later, a Medicaid recipient named Rosie Jimenez, a single mother of two, bled to death in her Texas home after obtaining an illegal abortion--the first victim of the funding cuts.

While the impact of the Hyde Amendment has never been accurately measured, it can be imagined: before the Hyde Amendment, one in every three abortions was funded by Medicaid.

More recently, the Reagan administration instituted a law affecting Title X-funded family planning clinics, which service 4 million poor women across the U.S.

Commonly referred to as the "gag rule," this law prohibits clinic personnel from mentioning the option of abortion to their patients.

Even if a patient asks where she can get an abortion, clinic personnel are required to reply, "This project does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning."

Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the gag rule in its Rust v. Sullivan decision.

In December, Congress passed a bill that would have temporarily overturned the gag rule, but Bush vetoed it.

In March, Bush experienced a slight change of heart: he loosened the restrictions to allow clinic doctors (not staff) discuss the abortion option with patients experiencing medical (not emotional) difficulty with their pregnancies.

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How to keep abortion legal

Since Clarence Thomas' appointment to the Supreme Court, many in the pro-choice movement have already conceded defeat. Many people believe that it is now inevitable that the Supreme Court stacked with Reagan and Bush appointees will overturn Roe v. Wade when it sets the opportunity.

Attention has focused on the Guam abortion ban, which is furthest along in the appeals process and will reach the Court sometime in the next year or two.

But despite the obvious anti-abortion bias on the Court, it's wrong to assume that legal abortion is doomed. And the strategy of the pro-choice movement over the next year will affect the outcome.

For one thing, the conservatism of the current Supreme Court in many ways parallels that of the Burger Court, which upheld legal abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In fact, then-President Richard Nixon had appointed Warren Burger as Chief Justice in order to conservatize the Court.

Yet the Burger Court voted 7-2 in favor of choice. And Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored the Roe v. Wade decision, was also a Nixon appointee.

The widely held view is that the Supreme Court is not subject to pressure from public opinion because the nine justices hold life-long appointments. But the Court does not interpret the Constitution in a vacuum.

This is why the Supreme Court upheld segregation laws at the turn of the century and then struck them down in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Similarly, the Court upheld legal abortion in1973 and now may overturn it.

The reason for such widely divergent interpretations of the Constitution lies in external factors which cause the Supreme Court to lean in ore political direction or another.

The difference between the 1973 Burger Court and the 1992 Rehnquist Court is not the result of who appointed the justices, a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Rather, the difference lies in the external political climate.

The early 1970s witnessed the height of the massive civil rights and anti-war movements, as well as a sizeable women's movement demanding the legalization of abortion.

The early 1990s, in contrast, comes on the heels of more than a decade of Reaganism, during which a confident and well-funded anti-choice crusade emerged while the women's movement has been put entirely on the defensive. An important lesson should be learned from the 1960s movements: building a large and militant protest movement is the most effective way to press for social change.

Whether or not such a movement is built in the next months will in large part determine the future for abortion rights in the 1990s.

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Why electoralism isn't a way forward

Faced with the 1992 presidential election, the strategy of the mainstream pro-choice movement is once more focused on campaigning for pro-choice politicians of both major parties.

But this strategy hasn't worked in the past. In fact, it is because the women's movement has relied upon electoralism for the last 15 years that so much ground as been lost.

When it comes to issues of "morality," politicians label themselves according to what they think will get them votes. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, at this point the Democratic frontrunner, calls himself pro-choice, but supports parental notification for teen-agers and opposes funding abortions for poor women.

In fact, the state of Arkansas, which has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, only funds abortion if a pregnant woman's life is threatened. And Clinton himself signed a parental notification bill in 1989.

Similarly, despite the Democratic Party's reputation as pro-choice, Democratic politicians haven't fought to prevent Congress from denying poor women federal abortion funding. Each autumn since 1977, both houses of Congress have upheld the Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal Medicaid funding for poor women's abortions.

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, this means a substantial number of Democrats vote in favor of the Hyde Amendment each year.

And, like the Supreme Court, politicians often change their minds with shifts in the political climate. George Bush himself was once solidly pro-choice. Then in 1980, when the political climate became much more right wing, Bush did an about-face on the abortion issue.

And now, while still anti-abortion, Bush nevertheless felt it necessary last month to bow to pro-choice pressure and loosen the gag-rule restrictions on federal family planning clinics.

Moreover, voting for politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, simply because they are pro-choice usually means voting for candidates with bad positions on other issues.

For example, former California Governor Jerry Brown is pro-choice but stands for a tax policy that is far more regressive than those of Reagan and Bush--an across-the-board 13 percent income tax, so that the wealthiest people in the U.S. would pay the same percentage of their income as the poorest workers.

These are the reasons why the electoral and lobbying strategy of the women's movement hasn't worked during the last 15 years.

We shouldn't ignore politicians, but we should pressure them by building a movement based on activism rather than the voting booth.

While the pro-choice movement needs to take the offensive in the political arena, we should do so not by relying on the goodwill of politicians bur by building a movement that forces politicians to feel that they can't afford not to be pro-choice.

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What's next for the pro-choice movement?

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the Pennsylvania restrictions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey on April 22, with a ruling expected by June or early July.

But, whichever way the Court rules on the Pennsylvania law, the Court is unlikely to rule on Roe v. Wade for another year or more.

That is how long it will probably take for the Guam abortion ban to exhaust the appeals process. This gives the pro-choice movement ample time to build a massive show of pro-choice support.

In other words, what pro-choice activists do or don't do in the coming months is likely to be decisive. And the challenge is formidable.

The various anti-abortion organizations have been well-organized and committed to activism for well over a decade. They have gained the upper hand.

In the same years the anti-abortion campaign has been organizing and building its strength, the women's movement has been fairly passive. It remained tied to politicians who were unable and unwilling to defend abortion rights.

With legal abortion in serious danger of being overturned, pro-choice organizations are faced with the task of mobilizing the large numbers of women and men who are willing to fight for abortion rights. Pro-choice activists must develop a new strategy that can once again take the offensive.

One opinion poll after another has shown a majority of people continues to support the right to legal abortion. But unless this support is galvanized, the pro-choice majority could continue to lose ground to the anti-abortion minority.

In April 1989, some 500,000 pro-choice supporters traveled to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate in support of the right to choose.

The April 1992 demonstration in Washington promises to draw another massive show of support for choice. But this march must be viewed as just the beginning of building a pro-choice movement which won't take no for an answer.

That is how we can keep abortion legal.