Abortion rights under attack; Time to build a new movement
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
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