Time to end the compromises on abortion

January 22, 2016

On the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, Elizabeth Schulte explains why reproductive rights are still under attack.

THERE ARE anniversaries that continue to be touchstones, no matter how many years have passed. January 22, the date of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion, is one of them.

Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade is for the most part recognized more by opponents of women's right to abortion, who protest on January 22 each year with large gatherings in Washington, D.C., and around the country.

Ever since the Roe decision lifted legal bans on abortion, opponents have worked to reverse this historic gain, born out of a women's movement that transformed the way people thought about women's rights, including reproductive justice.

And now, 2016 could be another important year for reproductive rights, as the Supreme Court prepared to take up its first abortion case in eight years. Whole Woman's Health v. Cole challenges recently passed Texas laws that impose requirements on abortion providers--the restrictions are so strict that they threaten to close three-quarters of the state's abortion clinics.

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

The fact that the anti-abortion side annually steals the spotlight on the anniversary of Roe speaks volumes about the way the right wing has approached the question of abortion--head-on. An anniversary that should be a public celebration for those who support reproductive justice is instead an opportunity for the other side to share its anti-women message.

Conservatives have waged a relentless legislative assault on reproductive rights, and it is having a real impact on the health and safety of women.

Just in 2015, lawmakers introduced some 400 bills to restrict access to abortion, including mandatory waiting periods and clinic rules like those in Texas that claim to protect patients' health. According to a report released by the Center for Reproductive Rights, 47 of these bills are now law. At least 20 came in response to the doctored videos claiming that Planned Parenthood is involved in illegally selling fetal tissue.

The toll of such restrictions on those seeking abortion, especially those without financial resources, reveals itself every day. In September, a 31-year-old Tennessee woman who could not obtain a legal abortion filled a bathtub with water and attempted to self-abort with a coat hanger--the one-time symbol of desperate women seeking abortions before Roe come to life in the 21st century. When Anna Yocca's boyfriend took her to the hospital, the police charged her with first-degree attempted murder.

Between congressional hearings accusing Planned Parenthood of "selling baby parts" and the vilification, if not criminalization, of women who seek to end an unwanted pregnancy, it's clear that the far-right individuals have been emboldened to act--the latest example being an anti-abortion terrorist who targeted a clinic in Colorado Springs, shooting and killing three people in November.

So how did we get in this situation where a relatively common medical procedure that one in three women will undergo by the time they reach menopause is discussed as if it were a crime against humanity?

While the right has been relentless in its attacks, that is only part of the picture. The rest of it is that established women's rights organizations and the politicians they promote have helped set the stage for these defeats--because they failed to put up a fight.

BEFORE THE bans were lifted on abortion, women died seeking to end unwanted pregnancies--a fact that was well known, but not talked about.

The determination to bring abortion out of the shadows of the dangerous and illegal back alleys is one of the ways the issue of abortion rights was pushed into the mainstream. Activists organized speak-outs where women told their stories and put forth an uncompromising defense of women's right to choose what she did with her body.

Unfortunately, the groups that have the most prominence today--and the money and support to make a defense of abortion rights--have taken a different approach over the decades since Roe.

The focus of groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and National Abortion Rights Action League (now called NARAL Pro-Choice America) has largely been to support legislation and politicians who say they will defend reproductive rights, rather than mobilize the forces that would push for women's demands from below.

When abortion rights hung in the balance during the George Bush Sr. administration with the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, some 500,000 pro-choice supporters traveled to Washington to demonstrate in support of the right to choose in April as the justices were deliberating on their ruling. That helped make a difference in the court's decision to preserve abortion rights. In 1992, as the court prepared to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey, NOW called another massive response in Washington, D.C.

But when Bill Clinton came into office, there were no such massive protests for a woman's right to choose. Rather than challenge Clinton and the Democrats to defend choice, the middle-class women's groups dropped all pressure in order to give their "allies" the space and time to negotiate with the Republicans. That time and space never came.

From the start, Clinton's refrain that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare" was an apologetic--at best--defense of abortion rights. His administration continually sought to find what they called "middle ground" with those who opposed abortion. As a result, more legislation restricting abortion was passed during the Clinton administration than during the Bush Sr. years.

The decline continued under Bush Jr. and during the Obama administration, too, as the Democrats used a ban on funding poor women's as a bargaining chip to gain the votes of Republican (and anti-choice Democrats) to pass the Obama's health care law.

Despite these betrayals, mainstream women's groups continue to corral their supporters into voting for the only "realistic" alternative to the Republicans--and succeed in getting very little in return. But with Hillary Clinton moving closer to winning the White House, the pressure will be on to go all-out for Clinton.

NOW and NARAL have already endorsed Hillary Clinton, and as usual, it's about these organizations getting a seat at the table rather than supporting a candidate who will fight against the obstacles that women face in trying to obtain abortions.

Several recent commentary articles have questioned why the Clinton campaign isn't attracting the support of young women voters. Is it a generational divide, asked the New York Times?

The real reason is pretty straightforward--and it's a rationale shared by many older women: they don't like what Clinton has to say.

Her position on reproductive rights is much like Bill Clinton's. At a 2008 campaign event, Clinton thought that the could find some "common ground" with opponents of abortion and said she thought abortion should be "safe, legal and rare, and by rare, I mean rare." She portrayed the decision to have an abortion as a wrenching one for "a young woman, her family, her physician and pastor"

Like Bill Clinton, her focus is on abstinence-only education--from back in 1996, when her book It Takes a Village argued, "I think we need to do everything in our power to discourage sexual activity and encourage abstinence"; to her Senate sponsorship of the "Putting Prevention First Act," which she described as providing "a roadmap to the destination of fewer unwanted pregnancies--to the day when abortion is truly safe, legal and rare."

THE ENTHUSIASTIC response to the social media campaign #ShoutYourAbortion last year demonstrated that there are many women out there who disagree with the Clinton's timid attitude toward abortion.

The campaign began in September, the day after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Amelia Bonow updated her Facebook status with the story of the abortion she had a year ago, explaining that "the narrative of those working to defund Planned Parenthood relies on the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about." She ended with the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.

The response was immediate--women infuriated by the attack on their right to choose wrote about their own abortion experiences, demonstrating that abortions are common for women across the country and countering the argument that they should be apologized for.

Guardian writer Jessica Valenti suggested that Clinton drop the rhetoric in a 2014 column, arguing that "'safe, legal and rare' is not a framework that supports women's health needs: it stigmatizes and endangers it...

We can focus on keeping abortions safe and legal. We should also work harder to make sure they're affordable, accessible and judgment-free. But let's not bolster anti-choice rhetoric and activism by calling for them to be 'rare'--especially since there are so many working to ensure that 'rare' is an enforced standard, not just a talking point.

Roe was won in the context of ongoing struggle and a shift in broader popular sentiment about women's second-class status in American society. Like civil rights before it, the issue of women's rights polarized the country--with the U.S. population divided almost down the middle on the question of abortion when the Roe ruling came down.

But the fight for equality was much larger than legal abortion--and even while abortion was no longer criminalized, it remained inaccessible to many poor and working-class women. The Hyde Amendment, originally passed in 1978 and approved by every Congress since then, banned federal funds from being used to pay for abortions--relegating poor women to have to carry out unwanted pregnancies because they could not afford an abortion.

Likewise, poor women's right to control their own bodies was still threatened--particular women of color, who disproportionately faced both the challenge of not having the means to end an unwanted pregnancy and the challenge of having the children they want to have. Sterilization abuse by the U.S. government has plagued poor women, particularly Blacks, Latinas and Native Americans, taking away their right to decide the kind of families they wanted to have.

SINCE THE Roe v. Wade ruling, a lot of ground has been lost on what should by now be considered an accepted right for all women. Instead, politicians treat support for abortion like a cold, political calculation.

Politicians used the issue for their own political gain--relegating abortion to a "cultural wedge issue" and women to a "voting constituency" that Democrats can count on for support.

Meanwhile, the leaders of organizations like NOW and NARAL concentrated on elections and legislation, funneling their members' money and support to candidates who never delivered--instead of devoting resources to mobilizing members and supporters to show their opposition to anti-women laws and the bigots who supported them.

Save for notable exceptions when grassroots activists convinced NOW to support counterprotests against anti-abortion groups who aimed to shut down clinics--like in 1992, when a mass mobilization in Buffalo, New York, forced Operation Rescue out of town--the established women's organizations didn't mobilize against the right.

By and large, their tactic was to ignore the anti-abortion protesters. In the absence of any call for activism, pro-choice supporters weren't mobilized to counter the bigots. Instead, clinic officials looked to laws like those imposing buffer zones on protesters--rules that police could use on the pro-choice side as easily the anti-choice.

Like the tactics, the rhetoric, too, has become defensive and weak since the movement before Roe that called for "Abortion without apology."

Despite all this, access to abortion is still a central concern for women. And contrary to what the right wing claims, it's a decision that many women could not live without.

According to a study in the academic journal PLOS ONE last July, 95 percent of the women surveyed who had abortions thought they had made the right decision for them. This flies in the face of right-wing rhetoric claiming that abortion is bad for women. It also stands in sharp contrast to liberal claims that abortion should be "rare."

Abortion is about women having the right to control their own bodies and make decisions about their futures. A woman cannot possibly be equal to men unless she can make the decision to safely end an unwanted pregnancy, and have access to the resources she needs to do so.

At its roots, the right to abortion goes to the heart of ending women's oppression. It isn't simply a choice over what one group of people thinks is "right" or "wrong," and it can't afford to be taken so lightly. We can't let anyone compromise on our equality.

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