Dark is This Long Night

 Al Gore and the Democrats’ Sorry Record on Abortion Rights

by Sunil Sharma

November 3, 2000


In the last couple of days before the election, I would like to take the opportunity to remind wavering Nader supporters – and especially Gore supporters -- of some important facts about not only the Clinton/Gore Administration’s purported commitment to abortion rights, but about the sorry state of mainstream feminist advocacy politics in general. As election night approaches, many of us who support Nader have been besieged by emails and letters from friends and unknowns urging us to put aside our “idealism” and “cute” expressions of principle and now grow up and be “pragmatic” by voting Gore. The tone of these correspondences, and particularly phony progressive commentators like Eric Alterman at The Nation, and the stable of moribund has-beens at In These Times, has gotten downright vicious as the gloves have come off. It’s in times of trial that people’s real colors come out, and indeed the most unalluring and nauseating features of the parlor “progressive”, liberal elite now stand stark naked for all to witness.


Pick any issue, foreign or domestic, and the differences between the Democrats and the Republicans are hard to find. With Clinton -- and even more so Al Gore --  we see the virtual consummation of the symbiosis of the Democrats and the Republicans. What differences there are between the two cheeks of the same rotten old ass are mostly disagreement over what tactics should be used in the attainment of a narrow but shared elite consensus as to how society should be run. Nevertheless, I feel sorry for the Democrats because I can truly imagine how frustrating it must be to not get the credit they deserve from the Republicans for implementing policies that Reagan-Bush couldn’t have dreamed of getting away with. Actually, those of you who have the same masochistic streak as I do and sometimes read the William F. Buckley-founded National Review can’t fail to be struck by the nods of approval Clinton-Gore often receive from them.  A few years ago, a frustrated Clinton told the press that the Republicans “should erect a statue of me” since he succeeded in accomplishing what his Republican predecessors were unable to do: eviscerate the New Deal, tort deform, the racist and anti-civil libertarian Crime Bill, The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which scaled back habeas corpus rights and greatly expanded the list of crimes punishable by death, anti-environmentalism (with a pro-environmental façade), NAFTA, WTO, and on and on. The lesson for would be New-Democrats? If you want to get your just due from the Republicans, you just have to join the Republican Party.


Anyway, the issue that keeps coming up as an argument to vote Gore instead of Nader is abortion rights. Gore flackers aver that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, and a with a Bush presidency the Visigoths will take over the Supreme Court and Roe v Wade will bite the dust. The Supreme Court issue is a perennial scare tactic, “the last refuge of Democratic scoundrels” as Alex Cockburn put it, with no real historical basis, and is simply the foisting of a top-down mentality of how society works that no erstwhile supporter of democracy and social justice should accept


We’re constantly told that Gore (and the Democrats generally) is the pro-choice ticket. Gore has the backing of the National Organization of Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Gloria Steinem, and Ellie Smeal’s Feminist Majority, among others. NARAL has coughed up at least $500,000 to pay for television ads “informing” voters that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, which by implication is an anti-choice vote. NARAL and NOW are especially vicious against Nader, now having descended to being mere shills for the DLC-Democratic Party.


As a Congressman, Gore was a fervent supporter of the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which prohibited federal funding for abortions. He even opposed language in an earlier version of the Hyde Bill that granted exemptions from the ban in the case of rape. The Democrats were in control of Congress at the time. Gore supported the even worse (though thankfully failed) 1984 Siljander Amendment, which would have defined as a “person” “unborn children from the moment of conception”, and would have banned any federal funding to any clinic or hospital that performed an abortion. Gore’s congressional anti-abortion stance earned him an 84% rating with the Right to Life Committee.  His numerous letters to Tennessee constituents affirming his “deep conviction” that “abortion is wrong,” that “innocent human life must be protected” and that he has “an open mind on how to further this goal” is a matter of public record. I will gladly email copies of these letters upon request.


So here is a guy who has been an ardent foe of a woman’s right to choose, and NARAL supported him earlier this year over Democratic Party presidential opponent Bill Bradley, who as a senator voted pro-choice 100% of the time. Going back to 1984, the Siljander Amendment was widely seen by lawmakers and abortion rights activists as having sweeping implications. The amendment failed by a vote of 219-186. Gore was one of the 74 Democrats who supported it. Gore and his allies insist it was a funding vote. A NARAL news release from the time also described it as a funding issue, noting that ''Some members, however, construed the amendment as a vote on the controversial question of when life begins [it certainly did!], although its passage would not have outlawed abortion in this country.'' (New York Times, 2/25/00) Whatever the case, NARAL’s blasé reaction to the Amendment showed its (and its candidate’s) lack of concern for poor women. We’ll get into a frenzy if middle to upper class (mostly white) women’s abortion rights are threatened, but who cares if it’s poor women. The Times quotes NARAL President Kate Michelman as saying that Gore was ''someone who cast votes we disagreed with.'' But she added, ''He never co-sponsored any of the 120 or so constitutional amendments that were consistently around Congress. He never signed on to, he never spoke on behalf of, any of those, ever.'' No . . . he just took an incremental approach to attacking abortion rights instead. Such high standards of abortion rights advocacy from the nation’s leading abortion rights group.


The Clinton Administration strode into office in 1993, having promised it would pass the Freedom of Choice Act. The FOCA would essentially codify the basic rights to abortion under Roe v Wade, removing most impediments to obtaining an abortion. As a Senator, Gore refused to sponsor the FOCA in 1989, 1990, or 1991, after he supposedly “evolved” into an abortion rights supporter. It was the perfect world for pro-choice activists: a Democratic administration in the White House, and a Democratic majority in Congress. Anti-abortion forces feared the Hyde Amendment was doomed. On July 30, 1993, the House revisited the matter, and passed a slightly watered-down version of the Hyde Amendment. However, “after an attempt to kill the Amendment on procedural grounds failed, 98 Democrats crossed the aisle, giving Hyde a 255-178 majority. When forced to go on the record about public funding, many pro-choice members of Congress chafed, apparently agreeing with the argument by Republican Rep. Henry Hyde…that ‘providing a constitutional right to abortion does not mean society has to subsidize the exercise of that constitutional right.’” (Insight on the News, 8/13/93). The FOCA also floundered in the Democrat-majority Congress.


Congressional Democrats who voted to uphold Hyde were assured that there would be no contrary pressure from the White House. Nearly a month earlier, the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report observed that “Bill Clinton’s campaign philosophy was to make abortion safe, rare, and legal …. However the absence of the Clinton Administration representatives at key abortion legislation debates indicates he is pulling back from his strong support of abortion. Clinton has done little to promote the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act bill, only stating that if Congress can pass it, he will sign the bill.” (7/3/93) As Fred Barnes reported in the pro-Gore New Republic (10/11/93), the Clinton Administration “didn’t lobby the House of Representatives last July when it took up the Hyde Amendment….He made no effort to broker the dispute that derailed the Freedom of Choice Act over the summer. Why not? He wasn’t asked to, explains Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos. And he certainly didn’t offer. Nor is Clinton insistent that abortion be kept a guaranteed benefit in his health plan. He also declined to impose a pro-choice litmus test on nominees for federal district court judgeships.” Barnes’ article was aptly headlined “Bush II.” 


Since then, the Democrats’ vaunted support for abortion rights disappeared from view, resurfacing only in an election year. And with the egg still freshly dripping from their faces, NARAL, NOW, and the liberal advocacy groups are again trying to tell us that Al Gore and the Democrats are going to be the standard bearers of abortion rights. Gore and Lieberman, who as senators, voted to confirm Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986 (the vote was 98-0, not a single Democratic nay. The “pro-choice” lobby was nowhere to be found during the Scalia nomination hearings). Gore, who almost voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the High Court, voting no only because he objected to Thomas’ referring to some members of Congress as “petty despots” (the only smart thing to pass from Thomas’ lips), and because of Thomas’ crackpot beliefs in principles of the religio-legal theory of Natural Law. It was a Democrat-majority Senate that confirmed Thomas, Anita Hill debacle and all. Gore, whose contorted answers to questions over whether or not he would apply a pro-choice litmus test to Supreme Court nominees (he implied in the debates he would, but then says he opposes litmus tests) are painfully embarrassing. Gore, a guy who can’t dispel suspicions about his “evolution” into a pro-choice advocate, (if it’s true wonderful) because in interviews with the press over the past decade, he tries to deny his previous record, yet when challenged with his actual record he tries to fudge his answers by raising silly distinctions. High school courses on logic and critical thinking should use press transcripts of said interviews as exercises in bullshit detection. Gore, a guy who continues to shamelessly lie no matter how often he’s caught doing it. This is the pro-choice ticket?


Furthermore, how is it that NOW, once an arguably broad-based, all inclusive, feminist organization, transformed into a single-issue group? There are many feminists who are not pro-choice who can find no home in NOW.  As Ellen Johnson, an Arizona Green organizer, recently quipped, “Since the onset of the Clinton presidency NOW’s once stalwart support of many women’s rights issues has eroded. While reproductive rights are important, so is quality childcare, a living wage, eradication of environmental toxins, and health care. Although Clinton/Gore promised to address these issues in ’92 and ’96, no acceptable plans for improvement have been implemented. Why is NOW so willing to give Gore another chance? Oh yeah, I forgot, for abortion rights…What is Roe vs. Wade worth to you NOW? If it means the wholesale sellout of a constituency you once pledged to serve then you are on the right track. If Gore wins because you’ve browbeaten enough women away from voting for Nader, then you can enjoy the power that comes with being co-opted by the system.” (Counterpunch, October 1-15, 2000).


Am I saying Bush will be any better? Of course not. If abortion rights is the central issue for many people, then a vote for Nader is the pragmatic choice. More to the point, the defense and expansion of any rights is a matter of activism, activism, activism. Nothing else. That is how we got Roe v Wade, authored by a Nixon appointee, during the Nixon years in the first place. That’s why five Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices upheld Roe in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v Casey decision. As Z Magazine editor Michael Albert so eloquently put it, never ever let anyone, especially liberals and so-called progressives who ought to know better, “redefine the lesser evil discussion in a way that presumes that elected officials are invulnerable to pressure, that vote outcomes matter more than the consciousness and organization of constituencies, and that movement organizing impacts what occurs in the short term and what is possible in the long term only by miracles as opposed to the hard work of losing, losing, losing on the road to winning.”


After twenty years of Reagan-Bush and their wannabes Clinton-Gore, it’s way past time for sunrise to rouse us from this long, dark night.


Sunil Sharma is the editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: editor@dissidentvoice.org





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