John Ashcroft wants to rifle through the medical records of women who have had late-term abortions. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reconsidering Roe v. Wade, the landmark federal Supreme Court decision that recognized the basic freedom to terminate a pregnancy. The South Dakota House of Representatives has passed a bill that would outlaw abortion in the state.
And the list goes on.
Is the right to abortion doomed? Well, not if thousands of folks preparing to join a national pro-choice March for Women’s Lives on April 25 have a say — not to mention the millions more who support them. But the burning question is how to save this embattled right.
The leaderships of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and NARAL Pro-Choice America pin their hopes on the Democrat Party. They plan to translate the April march in Washington, D.C. into votes and campaign cash for Democrats in the November elections.
There’s nothing new about their goal: to foil antiabortion forces by electing “anybody but (insert name of Big Bad Republican of the moment).” They have pushed this tactic for years with disastrous results, especially for poor women and women of color. It’s time to kiss that strategy good-bye and get radical!
It took a movement to win abortion. It’s worth noting that Roe v. Wade became law in 1973 under Republican President Richard Nixon. Harry Blackmun, a Nixon Supreme Court appointee, penned the ruling.
This is not to say that Republicans are our friends. Rather, grassroots feminists created so much popular pressure that conservative politicians and courts were forced to act.
The movement’s pioneers reached out broadly and connected abortion rights to other crucial struggles of workingclass women: for equal pay, affirmative action, childcare. They exposed the male supremacism and hypocrisy of religious zealots who preached the sanctity of zygotes while women died of back-alley abortions. They educated widely, held sit-ins at state legislatures, chased press, demonstrated, and did whatever else would move abortion to the front-page headlines.
The movement was radical and multiracial, led by those who didn’t have the money or connections to obtain an illegal abortion safely.
The war on poor women. But no sooner had the ink dried on Roe than reactionaries were trying to roll back its far-reaching consequences.
Their first targets were poor women. In 1977, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde authored an amendment to repeal federal Medicaid funding for abortion. It was passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress and Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
The Hyde Amendment was devastating for low-income women, and still is. And because of racist reproductive policies that push sterilization and dangerous injection drugs on women of color, it hit them hardest. For example, after federal funding for abortion was cut in Puerto Rico, where 35 percent of women were already sterilized, the sterilization rate rose to 50 percent.
By the 1980s, many states had passed parental consent laws that deprive teens of their right to abortion. The religious right also began attacking clinics, making abortion inaccessible in many places, particularly rural areas. Over one 12-year period, fetus fascists perpetrated 123 arsons and 37 bombings.
Establishment feminists looked to local police, police agencies like the FBI, and Democrats to stop the assaults, but federal officials prosecuted only 49 people. Meanwhile, Congress further emboldened antiabortion forces by seriously considering a Human Life Amendment to define life as beginning at conception.
The Democrats: a trail of betrayals. While the ranks of NOW and NARAL heroically helped defend clinics, their top national leaders had other priorities. To protect abortion, they relied on the courts and channeled energy into lobbying and getting Democrats, especially women, into office. In the process, they pursued a single-issue tack rather than the building of a multi-issue movement to counter the right’s multi-issue agenda.
And, to make their message supposedly more palatable, they flew the banner of the right to “choice,” not abortion. This “softening” of the message changes the message, disappearing the principle that abortion is every woman’s nonnegotiable right, regardless of income, age, length of pregnancy, or anything else.
In 1992 the ultimate dream of the reformist feminists came true. Bill Clinton won the White House, pledging to pass a Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). A strong Democratic majority in Congress, swept into office due especially to female votes, was well-positioned to help Clinton accomplish his goal.
But Clinton never pushed the FOCA; it died from neglect. He did, however, veto a national parental-consent law.
By early 1994, Clinton had jumped aboard the family-values bandwagon made famous by Dan Quayle, George Sr.’s vice president. In his State of the Union address, Clinton opened fire on welfare with a plan to force single moms into any available job or lose their benefits. His proposal became law without real opposition, as feminist misleaders kept a lid on protest for fear of alienating Democrats.
Women weren’t the only constituents Democrats betrayed. Labor, African Americans, immigrants, queers, and others were also sold out. The result of all this treachery was a Congressional sweep for Newt Gingrich and his rightwing pals in November 1994.
The rightward drift continues today. In 2003, 17 Democrats in the U.S. Senate, including minority Senate leader Tom Daschle, plus 62 Democrats in the House, helped Republicans deliver the antiabortion gang a major victory with the “partial-birth abortion ban.” So vaguely worded it could potentially outlaw abortion entirely, the measure passed with the help of Democrats who have been supported by money from Emily’s List, the pro-Democrat feminist fundraising machine.
How much worse can it get? Seriously worse, if we expect Democrats to save the day. Senator John Kerry, the shoo-in for the Democratic presidential nominee, backed Clinton’s gutting of welfare. He voted to require state governments to contract with religious institutions and he opposes gay marriage. While he says he would support the remnants of Roe, he personally opposes abortion. Kerry is far from a torchbearer for women’s rights.
The mandate for feminists: militancy! Casting Democrats as women’s champions rewrites their actual record. It is thanks to both parties of big business that for teenagers, mothers on public assistance, and others, reproductive freedom already has largely been taken away.
It doesn’t have to be this way. What worked in the past — a militant, multiracial mass movement — can work again. That means mobilizing a grassroots fight not only for abortion, but for everything that complete reproductive freedom really requires: 24-hour quality childcare and safe contraceptives, free or affordable for all; an end to forced sterilization; living-wage jobs; and universal healthcare, including coverage for abortion, prenatal and postnatal services, and the special needs of people with disabilities, communities of color, the young and the aged, and queers.
For such a movement, a Democrat in the White House is about as useful as a bicycle is to a fish. What women need is equality, peace and freedom, and the way to get it is through the kind of uncompromising, no-illusions struggle that originally won Roe v. Wade. Let the March for Women’s Lives launch its revival!
Linda Averill, a leader in clinic defense in Washington state during the embattled 1980s, may be reached at FSnews@mindspring.com.
Radical Women is organizing a Revolutionary Feminist Contingent to participate in the April 25 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. For more information, or to help build the contingent, call Emily Woo Yamasaki at 212-222-0633 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.