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Giving Ground to the Anti-Abortionists
Have Democrats Surrendered on Abortion Rights?
by Nicole Colson
February 3, 2005
First Published in Socialist Worker

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“We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic, choice to many, many women.”

It sounds like something straight out of the mouth of George W. Bush -- or some other anti-choice Republican looking to repeal abortion rights. But this was the comment of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she spoke last month to a 1,000-strong crowd of abortion rights supporters on the 32nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Taking a page straight from the Bush administration’s “moral values” playbook, Clinton celebrated faith and organized religion as the “primary” reasons why teenagers would abstain from sexual relations -- and insisted that there “is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate.” Unfortunately, the “common ground” Clinton is talking about is squarely on the turf of the right wing.

Clinton’s comments are just one example of the Democratic Party leadership’s attempt to embrace a more conservative stance on abortion rights after their November election losses.

Appearing last weekend on NBC’s Meet the Press, John Kerry told host Tim Russert that his party is a “big tent,” and it welcomes anti-choice Democrats. While defending the legality of abortion, Kerry said, “we ought to be making certain that people understand there are other options. Abstinence is worth talking about. Adoption is worth talking about.” Apparently, taking the right to choose away from teenage women is worth “talking about” as well -- Kerry told Russert that he was in favor of national legislation requiring parental notification for teens seeking abortion, as long as it had a judicial and medical exemption.

“Party leaders say their support for preserving the landmark [Roe v. Wade] ruling will not change,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “But they are looking at ways to soften the hard line, such as promoting adoption and embracing parental notification requirements for minors and bans on late-term abortions.”

The Democrats seem determined to prove that they are moving away from support for abortion rights. One of the Democrats’ first acts following the elections, for example, was to choose staunchly anti-choice (and anti-gay) Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) to replace Tom Daschle as the party’s minority leader in the Senate.

And in the current contest to see who will replace Terry McAuliffe as head of the Democratic National Committee, criticizing abortion seems to be a requirement.

Consider former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer -- who, incredibly, has the backing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a darling of liberals. As a member of Congress, Roemer voted in favor of the misnamed “partial-birth” abortion ban in 2003; supported barring family planning funding in U.S. aid abroad; voted for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act that gives fetuses a legal status; and supported a measure making it illegal for adults (other than legal guardians) to transport minors across state lines to receive an abortion.

Not to be outdone, former Vermont governor and failed presidential candidate Howard Dean, another frontrunner for the DNC job, recently told NBC, “I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats.”

Democrats taking a lukewarm stance on abortion is nothing new. President Jimmy Carter supported the Hyde Amendment, which cut government funding of abortions for poor women. While president, Bill Clinton famously said that abortion should be “safe, legal” and, most of all, “rare.” His administration took no action as access to abortion dwindled during the 1990s. In 1999, Clinton sold out poor women across the globe when he agreed to a global “gag rule,” imposed on international health and women’s rights groups who are recipients of U.S. aid.

Despite all this, prominent middle-class women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and NARAL Pro-Choice America continue to claim that the best way to defend abortion rights is to get out the vote for Democrats -- and devote money to lobbying and challenging restrictive laws in court.

In reality, groups like NOW and NARAL have shifted to the right along with the Democrats, embracing the ever-more conservative terms of the “debate” among the politicians. When Hillary Clinton talked about the “tragedy” of abortion, Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, couldn’t find anything wrong with the remarks. “In many ways,” said Smeal, “[Clinton] said that if you’re interested in reducing the number of abortions, you should be with us.”

Such statements represent a dramatic reversal from what was once accepted as common sense in the women’s movement--that the right to abortion is an essential component of equal rights for women. Women have to be able to determine what happens to their bodies--including terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

The Christian Right have a catchphrase claiming that “equal rights begin in the womb.” But this overlooks the fact that women’s position in society is hardly equal.

In a world where more and more working people lack health care and affordable day care -- and where a majority of women work outside the home while also carrying the burden of child-rearing, housekeeping and cooking inside the home -- pregnancies have economic and social consequences, and women need the ability to end one if they choose.

Restrictions on abortion rights impact poor and working-class women the most--they are less able to travel long distances, pay exorbitant amounts of money or endure insulting waiting periods and “evaluations.”

And the cost of these restrictions are measured in real lives. Like Rosie Jimenez, the Texas woman who died in 1977 from a back-alley abortion in Mexico, where she traveled after Texas stopped funding Medicaid abortions. Or Indiana teenager Becky Bell, who died in 1990 from complications from an abortion obtained after traveling across state lines because of Indiana’s strict parental consent laws.

The right wing’s arguments against abortion are couched in rhetoric about “morality.” But their crusade is political, not moral.

Morality is a personal matter. No one in the pro-choice movement has ever suggested that anyone who is morally opposed to abortion should be forced to have one. But this is exactly what the anti-abortionists want to do in reverse--impose their own conservative moral values on all women.

We shouldn’t accept any restriction on a woman’s right to choose abortion--no matter which party is making the proposal. Abortion is a right that no woman should have to apologize for.

How to defend the right to choose

There's no doubt that the November elections left the anti-choice bigots feeling confident -- and ready to push even harder to overturn abortion rights. Christian conservatives like Focus on the Family’s James Dobson are already sending a message to the Bush administration that they expect payback for their mobilization of Republican voters.

And in January, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, thousands of anti-choice protesters mobilized in Washington, D.C. -- and even in liberal San Francisco -- to show that they think they’re on a roll. The anti-abortionists had support in high places, too--as he has in the past, George W. Bush phoned in to the Washington rally to declare that “this movement will not be defeated.”

But as bold as the anti-choice forces appear today, it’s important to remember that they can be beaten back -- and have been in the past.

At the end of the 1980s, Operation Rescue (OR) gained national prominence with its blockades of clinics across the country to harass women seeking abortions. In 1991, OR invaded the city of Wichita, Kan., and -- thanks to legal protection from George Bush Sr.’s administration -- succeeded in shutting down several clinics.

Abortion rights supporters -- many of whom had spent the preceding years organizing against local anti-abortionist clinic blockades -- decided that they would defend the clinics themselves to keep them open. When OR tried to mobilize in Buffalo, N.Y., in April 1992, thousands of pro-choice demonstrators traveled from around the country to confront them.

From the moment the anti-choice fanatics showed up, they were met by angry pro-choice crowds, chanting, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, we’ll defend the clinic door!”

By physically confronting OR, pro-choice demonstrators made sure that the clinics doors stayed open. The anti-abortionists left town, their latest offensive a total failure. OR shrank in significance from that point on, and finally disbanded.

Just as being in the streets was the key to defeating anti-choice fanatics trying to shut down clinics, it was also the key to defeating the challenge to abortion rights in the courts.

Roe could have been overturned in two cases that came before the Supreme Court in 1989 and 1992. Hundreds of thousands of abortion rights supporters turned out for two national demonstrations as the separate cases were being considered. The justices didn’t overturn legal abortion--and one major reason, according to Justice David Souter, is that doing so would cause “both profound and unnecessary damage to the court’s legitimacy.”

Now, the right wing is smelling victory again. Our side has to rise to this challenge.

The pro-choice protesters who turned out to challenge the anti-abortion protesters in San Francisco last month had the right idea. Hundreds decided that it wasn’t okay to let the anti-choice march pass--and decided to sit down in the street to block its path. Sending this kind of clear message is the way to keep abortion rights safe.

Nicole Colson writes for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website ( Thanks to Alan Maass.

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