For a few brief years in the mid-1970s, after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the right to abortion was actually real for most U.S. women.
By the time George W. Bush was appointed president, however, this right already existed more in theory than in fact. This was thanks primarily to the 1977 Hyde Amendment outlawing the use of federal funds to provide abortions for poor women; a proliferation of restrictions at the state level, blessed by the high court; terrorism against abortion providers, including individual doctors, throughout the 1980s and ’90s; and a tenacious rightwing ideological campaign to diminish support for a woman’s right to control her own body and destiny.
Over the past 30 years, under both Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses, the right to abortion has been steadily eroded. The Fundamentalist-in-Chief now in the White House stands ready to deliver the final blows. Will we let him?
“Pro-life” patriarchs. Internationalist that he is, Bush believes it is his prerogative to control the lives not only of 50 million women of reproductive age in the U.S., but of women all over the globe. His first official act as president was to reinstate the gag rule that denies U.S. funds to family-planning agencies abroad if they take part in public debate about abortion or provide abortion information or referrals.
For his attorney general and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Bush picked abortion opponents John Ashcroft and Tommy Thompson. He has nominated more than a hundred anti-abortion judges to lifetime seats on federal district and appellate courts.
One of Bush’s main strategies is to promote the idea that fetuses are people, whose rights are at least equal to women’s. He supports laws defining “personhood” as beginning at conception, and his administration made fetuses, and not pregnant women, eligible for healthcare coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
No battle is too large or too small for this crusader against reproductive rights. A supporter of legislation banning late-term abortion, he also has attempted to eliminate a program providing prescription contraceptive coverage for federal employees, proposed restrictions on other forms of contraceptive funding and access, sought more funding for “abstinence-only” sex-education programs, and said he would back a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion — with the possible exception of cases involving rape, incest, and health threats to a pregnant woman’s life.
On the anniversary of Roe in 2002, Bush likened abortion to terrorism. In a proclamation declaring January 20 to be a “National Sanctity of Life Day,” he said: “Unborn children should be welcomed in life and protected in law. On September 11, we saw clearly that evil exists in this world, and that it does not value life… Now we are engaged in a fight against evil and tyranny to preserve and protect life.”
For full reproductive freedom! Bush or no Bush, the state of reproductive rights today cries out for the kind of grassroots, no-holds-barred organizing that won legal abortion in the first place.
Instead, however, establishment feminists — the National Organization for Women, the newly renamed NARAL Pro-Choice America, etc. — are pinning their hopes on getting more “good Democrats” in office, as always. This goes hand in hand with watering down the abortion-rights message in order to project an aura of “respectability” and appeal to conservatives.
Never mind the abject failure of these strategies to win something as simple as an Equal Rights Amendment or equal pay for women, let alone the total repeal of all anti-abortion legislation and free, safe, accessible abortion on demand — the original goal of the militant movement for abortion rights!
It’s high time that feminist women and men make abortion once again a front-page, prime-time issue.
And not just abortion, but everything having to do with a woman’s biological and sexual self-determination: sex education, access to safe contraception, a halt to coerced sterilization and birth control, freedom of sexual expression for all women and girls, paid family leave, universal healthcare and childcare.
Obviously, however, a system that is all about prioritizing war, repression, and corporate profits will not deliver on demands like the above. That gives feminists a profound connection to the
antiwar and labor movements. By integrating the issues and making common cause, the movements will make each other stronger.
The women most denied reproductive freedom are poor, of color, young, live on reservations or in rural areas, struggle with disabilities, or are in prison or the military. These women cannot afford to wait until reproductive rights are totally erased for all women. What about a national summit of students, working women, and grassroots feminist activists of all colors to discuss how to gain back what was once won and go forward from there?
Not the church, not the state, but women’s own control of their reproductive fate: let’s get organized and fight now to make it real.