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Abortion Rights Under Attack
Why are the Democrats Giving Up?
by Elizabeth Schulte
February 26, 2005
First Published in Socialist Worker

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A woman’s right to abortion is one of the few issues where the Democrats can still claim that they look different from the Republicans. But for how much longer?

In the aftermath of their loss to George W. Bush and the Republicans in the 2004 election, Democratic Party leaders like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) are pushing a new strategy on abortion rights -- finding “common ground” with anti-abortionists. And mainstream women’s groups are marching right with them.

NARAL Pro-Choice America -- a reliable supporter of the Democrats -- announced last week that it wouldn’t oppose the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, currently under consideration in Congress. The bill would require doctors to offer anesthetic for the fetuses of women seeking abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Like other anti-choice bills before it, the legislation attempts to grant fetuses the characteristics and rights of a living human being -- and is part of the wider chipping away of the right to legal abortion. But NARAL Pro-Choice President Nancy Keenan told the press that there were “bigger issues to fight.”

Meanwhile, NARAL placed an ad in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, asking the anti-abortion movement to “please, help us prevent abortions” by increasing access to birth control. “America would be a better country if no woman ever faced the difficult choices posed by an unintended pregnancy,” the statement reads.

The NARAL ad echoes the words of Hillary Clinton, who told a pro-choice audience that abortion was a “sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” “So my hope now, today, is that whatever our disagreements with those in this debate,” Clinton told a meeting of the Family Planning Advocates of New York State, “that we join together to take real reduce the number of abortions [among] women and girls in our country and around the world.”

Howard Dean, the newly selected chair of Democratic National Committee -- whose victory was hailed by pro-choice groups -- repeated Clinton’s message. Dean says that he wants “to make a home for pro-life Democrats.”

Already, the party is a “home” for abortion-rights opponents like Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was recently elected Senate minority leader.

The Democrats are encouraging anti-choice Democrats to run in several important upcoming congressional races. For instance, the party plans to run Robert Casey Jr. -- the son of abortion foe Bob Casey, the former Pennsylvania governor -- against Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. Casey Jr. opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

Kristen Day, director of the anti-abortion “Democrats for Life of America,” couldn’t be happier. “Three years ago, when we founded the group, we didn’t hear this kind of dialogue,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nobody in leadership returned our phone calls, and the party wouldn’t link us on its Web site. But now we’re finally getting a seat at the table.”

After Kerry’s loss to Bush in November, the accepted wisdom among Democratic Party leaders is that the party has been too radical on “moral” issues. This even though Kerry repeated his personal opposition to abortion during the campaign, and came out against gay marriage. Kerry was another example of a Democrat abandoning the party’s more liberal base in the search of conservative “swing voters” -- rather than making a stand that would have given anyone a reason to vote for him.

But the liberals have drawn the opposite conclusion. In American Prospect magazine, editor Sarah Blustain wrote in December, “The Democratic defense of abortion makes me cringe. It’s the stridency, the insistence, the repetition of a ‘woman’s right to choose.’ It rubs me the wrong way...After all, abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration.”

And the mainstream woman’s organizations that are supposed to be protecting a woman’s right to choose are following, as usual, the Democrats’ lead -- as the NARAL ad in the Weekly Standard shows. The ad encourages anti-abortion groups to support the “Prevention First Act,” legislation proposed by Reid with the support of Clinton, Kerry and several other Democrats that seeks health care services to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Any legislation that would fund contraceptives and sex education would be welcome -- but not if it is meant to replace a real fight to preserve abortion rights.

Democratic Party leaders who wonder why the national debate over abortion has shifted to the right should look at their own role in shifting it.

Likewise, organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America should examine their single-minded focus on supporting so-called “pro-choice” Democrats. When the Democrats’ definition of “pro-choice” came to include supporting punitive parental consent restrictions on abortion rights, groups like NARAL didn’t lift a finger. And now, with the Democrats poised to eject their pro-choice position completely, mainstream women’s groups are still silent.

Contrary to the popular wisdom peddled by leading Democrats, legal abortion isn’t being threatened now because its supporters were “too strident.” On the contrary, they haven’t defended abortion rights strongly enough.

Standing up against the anti-abortionists

Finding “common ground” with the anti-abortionists isn’t a strategy for winning more support for a woman’s right to choose. It’s a recipe for losing our rights.

The only way that we can defend safe and legal abortion is to fight for it. This starts by recognizing that there are two sides to this debate -- and the anti-abortion side has been unopposed for far too long.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, abortion rights activists took on the bigots in demonstrations in Washington -- and in local actions that chased them away from harassing women at clinic doors. There was an understanding among a core of activists that in order to drive the right back, the right had to be confronted. We have to rebuild that same kind of opposition today.

Elizabeth Schulte is a correspondent for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website ( Thanks to Alan Maass.

Other Articles by Elizabeth Schulte

* Minimum Wage America
* Skull vs. Bones
* The Hidden Housing Crisis
* What You Should Know About The John-John Team
* The B Team Gets Ready: Why Kerry and the Democrats Promote US Military Power
* John Kerry Tries to Out-Bush Bush
* Why Does Kerry Sound like Bush?
* Birth of a New Movement for Civil Rights
* The Many Faces of John Kerry: Pro-War, Anti-War, Insider, Outsider, Lib, Conservative