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International Socialist Review Issue 42, SeptemberOctober 2005
Abortion rights under attack
Time to build a new movement
By SHARON SMITH
SHARON SMITH is author of Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation (Haymarket Books) and, soon to be published, Subterranean fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket Books).
THE ISSUE of abortion rights took on a new urgency when Sandra Day O’Connor announced her resignation from the U.S. Supreme Court. George W. Bush took the opportunity to replace swing-voter O’Connor with an anti-abortion justice nominee—on a Supreme Court that has been divided down the middle on the issue of abortion for the last two decades. Democrats are likely to provide the votes needed to approve Bush’s nominee, archconservative John Roberts, before the Court’s next term begins in October. The right to legal abortion established by the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision will be in peril as soon as the opportunity arises to overturn this landmark ruling.
The Christian Right has been preparing for this legal battle for several decades, and its confidence has swelled since Bush’s reelection. In recent months, the anti-abortion crusade has broadened its struggle against abortion to include a campaign against birth control pills.
Christian Right activists are no longer satisfied with arguing that the rights of an unborn fetus supersede those of a living, breathing woman. They have begun championing the rights of the “unborn” zygote—a fertilized egg destroyed by oral contraceptives in the moments after conception. In pharmacy after pharmacy, anti-choice pharmacists across the country have refused to fill prescriptions for emergency morning after pills and other oral contraceptives prescribed to women by their doctors. As Karen Brauer, president of the Pharmacists for Life organization, explained, “A pharmacy should be for healing. It should not be for killing.”
After many years of effort, the anti-abortion movement has succeeded in posing the dominant debate over abortion as a question of morality—a dispute over whether human life begins at the moment of conception. These right-wing activists pretend that they are motivated by “Christian values” to defend poor helpless “unborn babies” from the shrill and uncompromising feminist movement intent on defending selfish women who irresponsibly become pregnant and then want to end the “inconvenience” of having a baby.
This debate is posed falsely on both counts. First, the debate over abortion is not primarily a debate about morality. Second, the anti-abortion crusade alone has been intransigent, while the feminist movement has been all too willing to compromise.
The Christian Right does not have a monopoly on Christian morality, or any other kind of morality. There is a wide variety of opinion on the morality of abortion among Christians. Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, for example, helped organize an underground abortion referral service in the early 1970s to help women get access to safe abortions when it was still illegal in most states.
Even the morality of the Catholic Church has changed over time. It wasn’t until 1869 that Pope Pius IX banned abortion at any stage of pregnancy. Until then, the church, along with the rest of society, did not frown on abortion up until “quickening”—fetal movement at around the fourth month of pregnancy. Morality, it turns out, is not some static absolute, but a social framework that changes according to the concrete circumstances within society at a given historical moment.
Why does this matter? Because the Christian Right gives its organizations names such as “the Moral Majority,” but they are neither morally superior, nor do they represent anything close to a majority. They are an extremely well funded, well organized minority with friends in high places—friends like George W. Bush. Bush now owes the Christian Right for mobilizing its constituency in November 2004, helping him win a very close election. Since then, spokespeople for the Christian Right have been demanding payback for Bush’s reelection—in the form of a ban on gay marriage and making real progress toward overturning legal abortion in Bush’s second term.
Needless to say, Christian Right leaders were very pleased when Bush nominated John Roberts to the Supreme Court. “It is time to make good on those campaign promises, Mr. President,” said Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. “You have been given a mandate to end abortion in our nation by the American people who cast their votes for you.”
To be sure, these right-wingers—including the one in the White House—explain their opposition to abortion and gay marriage with pious phrases praising “the sanctity of life” and the “sanctity of marriage.” But their crusade is political, not moral.
Morality is personal. Those who are morally opposed to abortion can easily follow their own consciences and at the same time allow other people to follow theirs. Those who are against abortion can simply choose not to have one, while respecting the rights of others to make their own choices. The issue becomes political, however, when abortion opponents seek to impose their own personal morality on the millions of people who do not share those same moral values.
In fact, the Christian Right that is so familiar today has its origins in the New Right that flourished during the 1980s—a conservative coalition that did not even pretend to be religiously motivated. The agenda of the New Right should dispel the myth that its opposition to abortion was tied to any belief in the sanctity of human life. The New Right supported the death penalty and nuclear weapons (including the neutron bomb, which kills people, but leaves private property intact), and pushed for massive social spending cuts against the poor. Its allies in Congress (unsuccessfully) sponsored the so-called Human Life Amendment banning abortion under all circumstances—with no exceptions for rape and incest victims, or even if the woman would die if she gave birth. So much for respecting “life.”
The New Right was formed in the late 1970s for a specific political purpose: building a stridently right-wing movement to oppose all the gains made by the social movements of the 1960s. The New Right was formed as an umbrella coalition that brought together religious zealots and protestant fundamentalists opposed to abortion; anti-feminists opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); bigots opposed to gay rights; racists who considered affirmative action an act of “reverse racism” against whites; old-time segregationists yearning for a return to the days of Jim Crow.
In 2002, Senator Trent Lott, who has spent his career carrying out the Christian Right’s agenda in Congress, attended a 100th birthday celebration in honor of the late segregationist Strom Thurmond. At the party, Lott praised Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, which was centered on opposition to racial integration. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either,” Lott said.
Lott’s statement reflects the political underbelly of the Christian Right today—a reactionary agenda, hypocritically justified in the name of Christian family values. The New Right’s, and more recently the Christian Right’s, opposition to abortion has its basis in this context. These advocates of “family values” not only oppose abortion but all aspects of women’s rights won by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They accuse working mothers of neglecting their children’s needs. They blame the high rate of divorce and the rising number of single mothers for undermining the nuclear family. And they oppose same-sex marriage because it directly threatens “traditional family” role models.
The traditional family ideal that is so beholden to the Christian Right harks back to the old Leave it to Beaver model of the 1950s—an always white and thoroughly heterosexual two-parent family, with two to three children living in a segregated suburban neighborhood. Dad kisses his wife goodbye in the morning to go off to work, then she gets into the station wagon to drop the kids off at school—returning home to cheerfully spend her day waxing the kitchen floor (always in high heels, of course).
The ideal housewife during the 1950s was expected to devote her life to pleasing her husband, as illustrated by the following passage from The Bride’s Reference Book, by the editors of Bride’s Magazine (M. Barrows & Company: New York, 1956):
From the day you say “I do,” your home and your husband come first…. From the practical, human point of view, do not expect your husband to accept cheerfully a slap-dash sort of housekeeping system such as you may have done fairly well with as a bachelor business girl. He may have found it amusing during courtship, but he is not going to think it is funny any more for you to arrive home breathless at 7:30 with the last minute groceries on your arm.
The Christian Right wants to return to this reactionary era—an era that was destroyed by the social movements of the 1960s. The women’s and gay liberation movements made alternative lifestyles socially acceptable, undermining the rigid gender roles so beholden to the traditional family ideal.
Like the New Right, the Christian Right’s opposition to abortion is part of a broader right-wing agenda. In the 1990s, the Christian Right supported so-called welfare reform that threw millions of poor families into deeper poverty, and pushed for teen abstinence programs. More recently, the Christian Right backed Bush’s $1.5 billion program to promote marriage specifically in poor African-American areas, where they believe the traditional family is most threatened by single motherhood. And the same Christian Right forces demanding that Bush overturn legal abortion are also demanding that Bush pass a federal ban on gay marriage
It is worth asking why the Christian Right is so attached to this rigid ideal of the nuclear family—why their family values can’t change to reflect the real changes in people’s lives. After all, the majority of mothers are now in the workforce. Half of all marriages end in divorce. And the demand for gay marriage is a result of the fact that many same-sex couples are choosing to live together and raise families.
The Christian Right can’t adapt to these changes in people’s lifestyles because of its broader political outlook, shared by the entire right wing of the Republican Party, which concludes that an “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” approach is the best way to serve corporate interests.
To be sure, the Democratic Party also serves corporate interests and also voices support—though less stridently—for family values (as John Kerry expressed clearly during the 2004 presidential debates). Bill Clinton appeased the Christian Right when he signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. In doing so, he helped pave the way for the gay marriage bans sweeping the country today.
Both Democrats and Republicans share an interest in upholding the traditional nuclear family—and women’s role within it. Preserving the institution of the nuclear family, and most importantly women’s unpaid labor inside the family, is of material benefit to the system. The Web site Salary.com recently estimated that stay-at-home moms perform roughly 100 hours of unpaid labor every week inside the home. Working moms who work at a paid job for forty hours per week try to squeeze their home responsibilities into sixty hours of unpaid labor (see http://www.salary.com/careers/layoutscripts/crel_display.asp?tab=cre&cat=Cat10&ser=Ser253&part=Par358). So mothers today, whether they work outside the home or not, spend roughly the same amount of time working—mostly without pay.
Despite the Christian Right’s “pro-life” rallying cry, the anti-abortion crusade completely ignores the very human lives of the women they expect to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term, who will then assume the twenty-odd years of responsibility for raising a child.
Far from the caricature of the selfish, irresponsible woman who casually decides to abort after six months of pregnancy, the overwhelming majority of abortions—more than 95 percent—are performed during the first fifteen weeks of pregnancy. This is despite all the restrictions now standing in the way of obtaining a legal abortion.
The majority of women seeking abortion do so because they cannot afford to raise a child at that point in their lives, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The right to legal abortion is therefore necessary for poor women in particular—because even when abortion is illegal, wealthy women have the money, the private doctors, and other resources to obtain abortions, while poor women face the choice of an unwanted pregnancy and risking their lives with unsafe, illegal abortions.
Abortion is a life or death issue—for women. Large numbers of poor and working-class women die when abortion is illegal because millions of women facing an unplanned pregnancy will resort to back-alley abortions in desperation, often performed without anesthesia in unsanitary conditions. And many will die from hemorrhaging afterward because they are afraid or unable to go to a hospital.
According to the World Health Organization, 78,000 women around the world die from unsafe, illegal abortions every single year. Before abortion was made legal in the U.S. in 1973, thousands of women were killed and maimed from illegal abortions every year. And because racism is tied to poverty, women of color died in the largest numbers. In New York City, Black women made up 50 percent of all women killed by illegal abortion, while Puerto Rican women were 44 percent. Since the 1970s, many of the same states that have denied Medicaid funding for poor women’s abortions have been perfectly happy to sterilize them free of charge.
This is why the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s centered its support for abortion rights on women’s right to control their own bodies and their own reproductive lives. Women alone bear the responsibility for carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term—often as single parents, earning wages that are much lower than men’s. Single mothers today head the vast majority of single-parent households, and female-headed families are the families most likely to be living in poverty. Women alone should have the right to decide whether to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, without interference from parents, boyfriend, spouse, or government.
Overturning legal abortion has been central to the political program of the Christian Right as a means to turn back the clock to the days before the women’s liberation movement was born.
But we have to ask the question: How has the Christian Right been so successful at shifting the political climate? And how can we shift it in the other direction? How have we gone from a situation in which the vast majority of Americans supported the right to choose to the situation today, when opinion polls show a majority supporting all kinds of restrictions on abortion?
For thirty-five years, the anti-abortion crusade has relentlessly pursued an activist strategy centered on promoting the false impression that women choose abortion for so-called frivolous reasons, or as a substitute for birth control, while irresponsibly delaying their abortions until the third trimester for the sake of convenience.
States across the U.S. have passed hundreds of laws curtailing women’s right to choose—imposing mandatory twenty-four-hour waiting periods, requiring teenagers to notify or obtain the consent of their parents even in abusive families, and refusing state funding for poor women’s abortions, even if they have cancer or diabetes. The attack on abortion reached the federal level in 2003 when Bush signed Congress’s ban on so-called partial birth abortions without so much as a clause to protect the health of the pregnant woman.
In reality, young and poor women suffer the most when abortion is restricted—and the effects are already reaching a barbaric level. A number of abortion clinics now offer a “no frills” abortion for a cheaper rate—that is, an abortion without anesthesia, for women who can’t afford the full cost.
For several decades now, the Christian Right has built a grassroots, activist base. Even when the going got tough, they continued rallying by the thousands, protesting outside abortion clinics, and making demands on politicians.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the pro-choice movement.
Instead of countering the anti-abortion crusade by mounting an unapologetic defense of women’s right to control their own bodies, many of the most prominent pro-choice organizations have relied exclusively on the Democratic Party to defend abortion rights since the 1980s. By definition, this meant watering down key principles, embracing only those demands that will “play” on Capitol Hill—to the point where the issue of women’s rights is now all but absent from the abortion debate.
For example, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL—since renamed NARAL Pro-Choice America) issued a “talking points” memo to its affiliates in 1989, instructing staffers specifically not to use phrases such as “a woman’s body is her own to control.” Rather, the right to choose was to be cast as a right to “privacy.” Increasingly, pro-choice organizations emphasized that being pro-choice also meant being “pro-family”—ceding crucial ideological ground to the main slogan of the Christian Right.
Instead of fighting the Christian Right, for years the largest pro-choice organizations have been spending the bulk of their time and money on electing pro-choice Democrats. The fact that some of those same Democrats turned around and voted for the “partial birth” abortion ban in 2003 demonstrates the bankruptcy of this strategy.
And Bill Clinton’s presidency, not the current Bush administration, marked the turning point for the pro-choice movement. Bill Clinton ran as a pro-choice candidate, promising a Freedom of Choice Act guaranteeing the right to choose for all women—which never materialized after he was elected.
Nevertheless, the pro-choice movement chose to work with, not against, Clinton throughout his presidency, even though Clinton voiced no disapproval as right-wing lawmakers state by state passed a wide array of restrictions on abortion. The voting record of Congress during Clinton’s first term was the most anti-choice in history, yet Clinton’s only attention to the abortion issue in his second term was to promote sexual abstinence among teens to lower the country’s abortion rate.
By the end of Clinton’s second term, women’s right to choose was far more restricted than when he took office in 1993. Clinton’s presidency showed why politicians cannot be relied upon to defend abortion rights—no matter what their campaign rhetoric. Rather than a step forward for abortion rights, Clinton’s presidency was a significant step backward.
And most important, support for Clinton disarmed the pro-choice movement. No national pro-choice demonstration took place between the time Clinton took office in 1992 and the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. Nor did the feminist movement hold Bill Clinton accountable when he threw poor women off welfare.
Since John Kerry’s defeat in November 2004, the Democrats have begun abandoning support for abortion rights, with barely a peep from the feminist movement. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton chose the thirty-second anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision in January to insult women who have had abortions, declaring, “Abortion is a sad, even tragic choice for many, many women.” She then offered to work with “people of good faith” (i.e., the Christian Right) to find “common ground on this issue.”
On April 19, John Kerry co-sponsored legislation with the notorious anti-choice Senator Rick Santorum making it legal for pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control in the ridiculously titled, “Workplace Religious Freedom Act.”
In other words, supporting Democrats as a strategy to defend legal abortion has come to nothing.
The feminist movement has moved rightward politically along with the Democrats—endorsing Clinton’s stress on teen abstinence, and, in recent years, using rhetoric that is difficult to even distinguish from the Christian Right. In 1997, Naomi Wolf—one of the most celebrated feminists in the U.S.—called on the pro-choice movement to join with opponents of abortion to “lower the shamefully high rate of abortion in the United States.” Now Wolf herself is touting a proposal to ban abortion after the first trimester, as columnist Katha Pollitt recently reported in the Nation.
Those who argue that the recent feminist strategy is “political realism” due to right-wing fanatic George Bush’s presence in the White House, are missing the most crucial lesson the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. That movement won the right to choose in 1973 when an equally right-wing fanatic—Richard Nixon—occupied the White House, and the Supreme Court was packed with conservative appointees. In fact, the first state to make abortion legal was California in 1970—when Ronald Reagan was governor.
These right-wingers were overpowered by the tens of thousands of women and men who held hundreds of protests across the U.S. that made women’s right to choose a central demand to the women’s liberation movement—along with equal pay, child care, and passage of the ERA.
Those who argue that this kind of protest movement isn’t possible in today’s political climate should keep in mind that one in every three women in the U.S. has an abortion before reaching the age of forty-five. And last year’s March for Women’s lives in Washington, D.C., drew a million pro-choice supporters—who were then demobilized by the rally organizers, who told them they needed to do nothing more than vote for Kerry in November to preserve abortion rights.
The human material clearly exists to build an activist movement that will settle for nothing less than restoring full abortion rights for women. Real people are living lives that are completely out of sync with the so-called family values of the Christian Right. We are in the majority, not the Christian Right. The pro-choice movement should be fighting against everything the Christian Right stands for.
Such a movement will find millions of people on its side. We need to resurrect the demand for “abortion without apology” and reclaim the abortion debate as an issue of women’s rights and women’s lives. And we need to settle for nothing less than victory.