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Thirty years after Roe
The fight to defend abortion rights

January 24, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

JANUARY 22 marks the 30th anniversary of the legalization of abortion in the U.S. 1973 was a watershed year for women's rights, with public protest forcing the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of abortion in Roe v. Wade.

The legalization of abortion meant that millions of women would no longer have to risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy in the offices of back-alley abortionists. And it meant that women--rather than the government, the church or their husbands or families--had the right to decide what they did with their bodies.

Since that time, anti-abortion forces have tried to take back this hard-won right by chipping away at access to abortion services--state by state and procedure by procedure. Today, George W. Bush and his Republican henchmen in Congress have the attack on abortion rights at the top of their agenda.

Nicole Colson and Elizabeth Schulte report on this assault--and explain why every woman and man should fight to defend a woman's right to choose.

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REP. HENRY Hyde (R-Ill.), a leader in the backlash against a woman's right to choose, had a strategy in mind almost as soon as Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationwide. Knowing that he didn't have the forces to overturn Roe, Hyde argued that the anti-abortionists would have to chip away at abortion rights one piece of legislation at a time. And that's exactly what they did--starting with Hyde's own attack on poor women in 1976.

The Hyde Amendment denied federal Medicaid funding for abortions to poor women. The effects were immediate. Less than a month later, Rosie Jimenez, a Medicaid recipient and mother of two in Texas, bled to death from a back-alley abortion.

During the 1980s, an activist wing of the anti-abortion movement took to the streets, targeting women's clinics, doctors and their patients for harassment and abuse. Pandering to right-wing Christian conservatives, George Bush Sr. encouraged actions by fanatics like "Operation Rescue." In 1991, when a federal judge tried to stop Operation Rescue from carrying out mass blockades of clinics in Wichita, Kan., Bush intervened on the side of the bigots.

For the Republicans, the attack on abortion rights went along with a broader assault on rights for women, Blacks, workers and the poor--from attempts to overturn affirmative action to the gutting of welfare and other social services.

But that sparked a response. Growing numbers of abortion rights supporters concluded that they had to defend the right to choose. So thousands came out to counter-protest Operation Rescue in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1992--and effectively shut down the bigots. Likewise, when the Supreme Court took up different cases that threatened to overturn Roe in 1989 and 1992, hundreds of thousands turned out to massive protests in Washington, D.C.

During the 1990s, anti-abortion legislators were happy to pick apart abortion access one procedure at a time, while states heaped on mandatory waiting periods, parental consent laws and bans on specific procedures.

The latest focus has been a late-term abortion procedure that the anti-abortionists have misnamed "partial-birth" abortion. The procedure is now banned in a number of states, and right wingers in Congress regularly wave around bloody photographs to vilify it as "infanticide."

At best, Democrats--who are mostly supporters of abortion in word--let the Republicans get away with this. And in some cases--as with then-House Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)--they helped the Republicans write better legislation to ban the procedure.

In some states where bans on "partial-birth" abortion have been passed, the laws are so vaguely worded that abortion providers have had to shut down--because all procedures could be considered illegal. And that's exactly what the bigots intend.

That's why we can't stand for a single limit or restrictions. Abortion rights are central to the fight for women's liberation--the right for a woman to determine what happens to her body. Any restrictions on that right are certain to impact poor and working-class women the most. For example, some 87 percent of U.S. counties don't have an abortion provider, and the cost of traveling to find one is often prohibitive to poor women.

Abortion should not only be legal, but must be funded, too. Demands like these are the only guarantee that women won't return to the bad days of the back-alley abortions. That's why we say: Abortion rights for all women--with no apology!

Chipping away at our rights

ALMOST SINCE the day that the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision, a woman's right to choose has been under attack. Here are the "lowlights" of how our rights have chipped away:

1976 Congress passes the Hyde Amendment, cutting off federal Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women, and 32 states pass similar measures for state funds.

1977 Rosie Jimenez, a Texas woman, dies from an illegal abortion that she traveled to Mexico to obtain after Texas stopped funding Medicaid abortions.

1984 Ronald Reagan institutes a global "gag rule" barring international health providers receiving U.S. family planning funds from counseling women about abortion.

1988 Anti-abortion fanatics calling themselves "Operation Rescue" begin their campaign of blockades of abortion clinics in cities across the country.

1989 The U.S. Supreme Court comes within one vote of overturning Roe v. Wade and upholds a Missouri law allowing states to prohibit any publicly funded health facility or public employee from performing abortions, except in cases where there is a danger to the life of the mother.

1990 The Supreme Court upholds Hodgson v. Minnesota, one of the strictest parental notification laws in the country. Indiana passes a similar law, and later that year, Indiana teenager Becky Bell dies from complications from an abortion obtained after traveling across state lines--because she had heard that the judge who would rule on her parental consent waiver was anti-choice. By 2003, 31 other states also require parental notification.

1992 In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court upholds a Pennsylvania law requiring a 24-hour waiting period, mandatory anti-abortion "counseling" and parental consent for minors. By 2003, 17 other states also require a waiting period and "counseling."

1993 Dr. David Gunn is murdered by an anti-abortion fanatic outside of the Pensacola Women's Medical Services building in Florida. More doctors, clinic workers and pro-choice activists are killed and hurt in the years to come.

1998 Every clinic in Wisconsin stops performing abortions for two days after a bill is passed outlawing the intact dilation and extraction abortion procedure (which anti-choice bigots misname "partial birth" abortion).

2001 George W. Bush re-institutes the global "gag rule," and the Bush administration cuts off Medicaid funding for the abortion drug RU-486, except in cases involving rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger.

2002 The House of Representatives passes a ban on intact dilation and extraction--which will be voted on in 2003 in the Senate--along with bills making it a crime to accompany a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion and allowing government-funded health care providers to refuse to perform abortions.

The fair-weather Democrats

EVER SINCE women gained the legal right to abortion, mainstream feminist and liberal groups have insisted that electing Democrats is the most important part of protecting that right. But is it? Consider the records of a few of the most powerful Democrats of the last 25 years:

Jimmy Carter
When the Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976, Carter showed his disdain for rights of poor women. "As you know there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can't," he famously declared. As if being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term was the same as being unable to afford a BMW!

Carter also ended abortion funding for women in the military overseas and cut off funding to international birth control groups that offered abortion as an alternative.

Bill Clinton
As governor of Arkansas, Clinton signed a bill into law requiring women under the age of 18 to notify a parent before having an abortion--and he opposed funding abortions for poor women.

While running for president, Clinton made a number of promises to win pro-choice support--such as a Freedom of Choice Act and repealing the Hyde Amendment--but he never delivered, even though Democrats controlled both the House and Senate during his first two years in office. In 1999, Clinton agreed to a global "gag rule" on international health and women's rights groups funded by U.S. aid--as part of a compromise over payment of back dues to the United Nations.

Al Gore
No issue prompted more calls to support Al Gore for president in 2000 than abortion rights. But his record tells a different story. When Gore served in the House of Representatives, the bigots on the National Right to Life Committee gave him an 84 percent approval rating, and NARAL called him "decidedly anti-choice."

In all, Gore cast a total of 27 anti-choice votes during his congressional career--something that he was all-too-willing to crow about in the old days. "During my 11 years in Congress, I have consistently opposed federal funding of abortions," then-Sen. Al Gore wrote to a constituent in 1987. "In my opinion, it is wrong to spend federal funds for what is arguably the taking of a human life."

Rights that we won by struggle

MIDDLE-CLASS women's groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) claim that the best way to hold onto abortion rights is to concentrate on Washington. We need to get out the vote for Democrats, they say, and devote money to lobbying and challenging restrictive laws in court.

But that's not how abortion rights were won in the first place. Inspired by the civil rights struggle and the movement against the Vietnam War, the women's liberation movement began to emerge in the mid-1960s. As the struggle gathered force, tens of thousands of women and men held hundreds of protests across the U.S. Women's right to choose was a central demand--along with equal pay, funded child care and an end to discrimination.

On August 26, 1970, more than 50,000 people participated in the Women's Strike for Equality--a day of action for women's rights that included the demand for "free abortion on demand." Gradually, states such as Hawaii, California and New York were pressured into repealing laws against abortion.

By the end of 1971, 14 states permitted abortions under certain circumstances, and four guaranteed a woman the same abortion rights that would be handed down under Roe v. Wade. This was the setting for the U.S. Supreme Court's deliberations on Roe v. Wade in 1973.

The court was packed full of conservatives appointed by anti-abortion President Richard Nixon--but it decided in favor of abortion rights anyway. The nine justices are supposed to be immune from public pressure. But Roe proved that they aren't.

Thus, when the anti-abortion tide peaked in the late 1980s and early '90s with two Supreme Court cases that threatened to overturn Roe, huge pro-choice marches organized by NOW in 1989 and 1992 had a clear impact. "A decision to overrule Roe's essential holdings," Justice David Souter wrote, "would address error, if error there was, at the cost of both profound and unnecessary damage to the Court's legitimacy." In other words, trying to end the right to choose would spark immense anger.

Earlier this month, as NARAL announced a new multimillion-dollar lobbying and advertising campaign for abortion rights--and a name change to "NARAL Pro-Choice America"--the group's president Kate Michelman declared that "the most important social changes in our nation's history have come from outside Washington."

She's right. But NARAL's strategy has for years worked in exactly the opposite direction. The pro-Democrat lobbying and public relations machine of groups like NOW and NARAL is a far cry from the activism of the 1970s women's movement.

We need to look back to the struggles that won our rights in the first place--and recognize that our fight lies not at the ballot box, but in mobilizing in the streets to send our message in support of abortion rights.

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