Why is the right winning the abortion debate?

February 8, 2008

Nicole Colson looks at why abortion rights supporters have lost ground.

JANUARY 22 marked the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision giving women the legal right to abortion.

But the few essays commemorating the importance of Roe to women's lives and health were mostly overshadowed by reports that abortion is further out of the reach of ordinary women across the U.S.

Nationally, the abortion rate is at the lowest level since 1974, the year after Roe became law, according to a recent census of abortion providers by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. In Illinois alone, the abortion rate declined by 19 percent in the past five years. Despite an increase in the number of women of reproductive age, the number of abortions in the U.S. has dropped in the last 15 years from a high of 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2005.

In part, this is due to the over-the-counter availability of Plan B birth control (the "morning-after pill") and a rising number of non-surgical abortions resulting from increased use of the drug RU486. But there has also been "a sharp decline in the number of abortion providers," as the Chicago Tribune reported. "Recent years also have seen an upsurge in legislation making it more difficult for women to access abortions and for doctors to perform them."

What else to read

For the facts on abortion and other reproductive rights issues, the Guttmacher Institute Web site is an excellent resource for statistics and basic information.

Socialist Worker columnist Sharon Smith has several essays on reproductive choice and the right's offensive in her book Women and Socialism, published by Haymarket Books. For an overview of the erosion of abortion rights, see Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, by William Saletan.

Also see Leslie Reagan's When Abortion Was a Crime for an important look at the deadly consequences when women don't have access to abortion.

Together, the statistics point to a bleak reality--that an abortion is harder to obtain for many women today than several decades ago, and that support for the right to abortion, particularly among young people, has declined.

"Pew Research Center polls dating back a decade show that 18- to 29-year-olds are consistently more likely than the general adult population to favor strict limits on abortion," the Los Angeles Times reported. A Pew survey over the summer found 22 percent of young adults support a total ban on abortion, compared with 15 percent of their parents' generation.

Looking specifically at teens, a Gallup survey in 2003 found that 72 percent called abortion morally wrong, and 32 percent believed it should be illegal in all circumstances. Among adults surveyed that year, only 17 percent backed a total ban.

THERE'S NO doubt that the anti-choice movement has gained a large amount of ground in the ideological, as well as legal, battle over abortion rights.

By chipping away at abortion rights bit by bit since Roe was first made law, the right wing has made the idea acceptable that women are somehow not capable of making a choice for themselves. In addition, the claim that abortion is not only "ending a life" but psychologically "damaging" to women has led to a flood of pseudo-scientific claims about such made-up conditions as "post-abortion syndrome."

But if the right has succeeded in conquering so much ideological territory, it's largely because the leading voices in support of abortion--in particular, the mainstream women's movement--have been so willing to accept the idea that abortion is primarily a moral issue, not a political one.

"No woman wants to have an abortion," begins the standard apology. "Of course, we want to reduce the number of abortions" begins another. By this logic, abortion becomes something to be constantly apologized for, rather than a basic right to be fought for and protected.

Likewise, the failure of the pro-choice movement to stop the gutting of abortion rights is explained away as a problem of changing morals, as opposed to a failed political strategy.

Take, for example, a recent essay by Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, and Kate Michelman, the former president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America).

Kissling and Michelman write that the reason abortion rights are in peril today is because the Christian Right not only has been savvier at "messaging" than pro-choice forces, but also that it is more in touch with America's changing moral values.

"Twenty years ago, being pro-life was déclassé. Now it is a respectable point of view," they write. "How did this happen? Did the pro-choice movement fail? Or did those opposed to abortion simply respond more effectively to the changing science as well as the social shift from the rights rage of the '60s to the responsibility culture of the '90s?"

The answer, they conclude, is to seek common ground with the right wing--to admit that abortion should be framed as just one part of a bigger "conversation." "Advocates of choice have had a hard time dealing with the increased visibility of the fetus," they write. "The preferred strategy is still to ignore it and try to shift the conversation back to women. At times, this makes us appear insensitive, a bit too pragmatic in a world where the desire to live more communitarian and 'life-affirming' lives is palpable...

"Our vigorous defense of the right to choose," they conclude, "needs to be accompanied by greater openness regarding the real conflict between life and choice, between rights and responsibility. It is time for a serious reassessment of how to think about abortion in a world that is radically changed from 1973."

This strategy does nothing to protect abortion rights or build the fight to make up the ground lost, In fact, it emboldens the right.

Commenting on Kissling and Michelman's article, for example, Joe Scheidler, head of the hard-right, Illinois-based Pro-Life Action League--known for its physical and verbal harassment of women outside clinics--gloated, "[I]t is a healthy sign that the proud pro-choicers, who had society eating out of their hands only a few years ago, are now desperately seeking common ground in an effort simply to survive."

INSTEAD OF rebuilding the fight for abortion rights along the lines of how it was won in the first place--through activism and a fighting women's movement--the mainstream women's movement has instead placed its hopes in the Democrats.

Such hopes are misplaced. Democratic presidents have a history of taking a lukewarm (or openly hostile) stance toward abortion rights. Jimmy Carter, for example, supported the Hyde Amendment, which cut government funding of abortions for poor women. Bill Clinton famously said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"--and stood by as access to abortion was gutted during his presidency.

Between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, little is being said on the campaign trail about defending the right to choose abortion. But it's not hard to figure out that neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to blaze a trail forward in protecting abortion rights.

Clinton, whose candidacy has been endorsed by the National Organization for Women, used the anniversary of Roe v. Wade three years ago to declare abortion a "sad, even tragic, choice." Obama, meanwhile, has said little about abortion rights on the campaign trail beyond the standard pledge to appoint pro-choice Supreme Court justices.

Clinton did slam Obama's "present" vote--rather than a "no"--on several right-wing bills in the Illinois Senate dealing with restrictions on reproductive rights. But on at least one--the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which would have required legal protections for fetuses "born alive" during abortions--Clinton voted along with 97 other U.S. senators to support nearly identical legislation in Congress in 2001.

If the top Democratic contenders aren't saying anything much this year about protecting abortion rights, it's because liberal pro-choice organizations haven't really asked them to.

Despite the bleak picture, however, the possibility exists to build a real fight to win back abortion rights. As the LA Times pointed out, even in the face of the right-wing assault, a "substantial majority" of people in the U.S. want abortion to remain legal, and "millions of young people continue to choose abortion when faced with unplanned pregnancy."

This shows the potential to rebuild a movement that demands the right to abortion--without apology.

Further Reading

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