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gender & sexuality

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

equal pay, child care, and ERA 17.Sep.2005 01:19


Wait. We didn't get those.

So, maybe choice wasn't such a radical demand. Or, maybe it was not a demand which discomfited those "right-wingers". Not as much as personhood for women, anyway.

Regardless, those right-wingers are certainly not the same as the "right-wingers" we have now. For one thing, the adjective "religious" would have been ridiculous then; while its absence is more than ridiculous now.

Also, although "right" was perhaps not entirely accurate then, it is devoid of meaning now. Unless, of course, it now means "them", as apposed to "us".

The point being, when theory fails to decribe reality, you should adjust the theory. Using different words to describe reality, to make it seem to conform with theory, is self-defeating, because people live with reality and you can't adjust that.

"-" 17.Sep.2005 11:35

alsis39 alsis35@yahoo.com

Smith is correct. I don't know where you get your "reality" from, O Wise and Knowing, "-". My "reality" is that I don't have to be a breeder mare for anyone, and that the law should recognize that.

BTW, if you look for more of Smith's columns, you'll find that she talks quite frequently about women's issues in general, not just abortion. She even wrote a book about it called *Women and Socialism*.

When you're ready to put down your bong, you might want to do a little reading. A copy of *Elements of Style* might be in order as well. Hell, in your zeal to sneer at Smith, you can't even decide whether she's bad for using passe' terminology, or not enough new, improved terminology. You contradict yourself in your own response.

"...people live with reality and you can't adjust that."

Well, there you have it. Activism is pointless. Let's all fold up the tents and roll out. "-" has spoken. [rolleyes]

more of Smith's words: 17.Sep.2005 12:38


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

Point on privacy 17.Sep.2005 17:21


The OP wrote:

"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.""

This is because issue of abortion under Roe V. Wade was decided by the Court to be a privacy issue, a right guaranteed under the 14th Amendment. By using the term "privacy" it reminded people the matter had been decided and judged constitutionally valid.

While I agree the pro-choice movement needs to re-energize, I don't think it's fair to attack those who use the other side's arguments against them. What's wrong with reminding society that many abortion supporters have familys, and support them, hence wanting women to have control over their own reproductive capabilities?

The OP wrote:

"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."

If you will remember, the Democrats lost control of the Congress in 1992, two years after Clinton took office. The last 6 years was Clinton against the Republicans. And "In June [1993], the U.S. House renews the Hyde Amendment. An NRLC-led lobbying campaign defeats the so-called "Freedom of Choice Act," a proposed federal statute to invalidate even the narrow types of state abortion regulations permitted by the Supreme Court. In December, the Clinton Administration orders states to change their laws and provide payments for abortions in cases of rape or incest. --  http://www.raptureready.com/rap31k.html (an anti-choice site that does not sugar-coat Clinton's failures to pass abortion laws)

Why castigate those who, though not being necessarily effective, do support abortion rights, and would be willing to help turn the tide, but either don't know how to rebuild, or, as politicians, are afraid of being voted out of office by anti-choice Republicans (or even Democrats) if they go "too radical"?? We in the movement must show them they have support, we as a movement must accept responsibility for growing complacent and/or ineffective and work to swing things around.

I wonder 18.Sep.2005 16:15


As a mother and grandmother, and a feminist, I have to wonder why it is not possible to say the rate of abortions is shamefully high and ought to be lowered while at the same time allowing women the right to choose? Those in my mind are not mutually exclusive stands. Abortion is very hard on the body and the psyche. Women ought to have access to good healthcare, quality education and birth control options as well as choice when those things fail. If women had those options, the rate of abortions would come down and that in itself would promote better health for women.
I too fear the loss of choice for the times when women have to make the choice, but I also strongly hope for the day when the rate of abortions is almost nil.

"shamefully" high abortion rate? "shame"? really? 18.Sep.2005 19:10


I would disagree that shame should be an issue in the abortion rights debate. Complete freedom over ones own body is paramount.

And as far as being pro-family, the OP was making a point about tactics. By couching the pro-choice argument in its opponents' language, you are ceding ground which is not necessary to cede. Also, don't you think that ineffective "pro-choice" politicians SHOULD be castigated? In the case of abortion rights, it's not so much a question of their efficacy, but rather their priorities - abortion rights don't seem to be very important. The so-called "partial birth" abortion bill passed by only one vote. If Kerry quit his campaigning (yes it was during th elast "election") enough to fly to DC to do his job and vote, yet more ground would not have been lost to the religious right.

Castigated 18.Sep.2005 19:44


To GS - I think we as a movement should be castigated, not single out politicians. We should all be making ourselves loud and clear, something we've ceded to the anti-choice movement. There is more than one reason for ineffectiveness - deliberate uncaring is only one; uncertainty, lack of experience, and fear are others. Let's make sure those who fall in the latter categories are supported, we can take care of the former category at election time.

As for incorporating their language, what is wrong with that? What is wrong with reminding people the pro-choice movement is the one that truly supports families by allowing them to use all the tools available to them? Birth control *and* abortion if bc should fail, or if the mother or fetus's health has been compromised, etc..

Too many movements are destroyed by finger pointing. Let's just *do* it!

It is a shame 19.Sep.2005 01:30


when abortion is the choice because other options that are less traumatic (i.e. birth control) were not available. I have lived long enough to have been with enough women to know that abortion is not easy on women. It is too often a convenience for men while women pay the cost in their bodies and psyches. I used the word shame as I was quoting from the original article, (Naomi Wolf's words). But I happen to agree that the high number of abortions is a shame because the other first lines of defense against unwanted pregnancy have not been readily available. Shame on the system that denies women adequate healthcare, education and access to birth control as well as care when they choose to keep their babies.
If men had to endure such trauma to prevent a pregnancy..... I wonder what the conversation would be like...