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Our Bodies! Our Choice!
Winning the Fight for Reproductive Rights

by Evelyn Sell


Chapter I: The Current Struggle for Abortion Rights in the U.S
Chapter II: A Winning Strategy to Safeguard Reproductive Rights
Chapter III: The Fight to Win Legal Abortions
Chapter IV: Attacks by Anti-Choice Terrorists

A Fourth Internationalist Tendency Pamphlet

First Edition 1989; Second Edition 1991

About the Author

Evelyn Sell was a founder and state officer of the Texas Abortion Coalition during the 1970s and is currently a member of the Los Angeles chapter of NOW. A member of the United Teachers Los Angeles (NEA/AFT), Sell helped establish the union’s Human Rights Committee. She is a contributing editor to the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, a monthly journal published by the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (FIT).

Many of the founding members of the FIT were active in the 1970s fight to repeal abortion laws and were longtime feminist activists. FIT members and supporters around the country are currently involved in clinic defense actions and in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights.



Chapter I
The Current Struggle for Abortion Rights in the U.S.

Today’s efforts to preserve women’s reproductive rights were set into motion by the July 3, 1989, U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a Missouri law which severely restricted abortion availability. With their ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Inc., the majority of justices gave a clear signal of their willingness to approve limitations on abortion counseling and services. The Supreme Court stopped short of actually reversing the 1973 decision on Roe v. Wade but the justices have continued to chop away women’s reproductive rights — with especially disastrous results for poor women, low-paid female workers, youths, and women of color.

* On June 25, 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that states can require minors to notify one or both parents or receive a judge’s permission before obtaining an abortion.

* On May 23, 1991, by a 5-4 vote on Rust v. Sullivan, the justices upheld a government regulation prohibiting health care workers in federally funded family planning clinics from telling women that abortion is a medical option. The “gag rule” had an immediate impact on some 4,000 clinics serving about five million teenaged and poor women a year. The Rust decision was a particularly hard blow to women of color who make up over 30 percent of Title X patients using family planning clinics funded totally or partially by the federal government.

* On June 3, 1991, the Court approved the government’s right to deny foreign aid funds to overseas health care groups that perform or counsel on abortions. In addition to affecting family planning projects in Third World Countries, the ban cut off funds to U.S. organizations which carry out programs around the world.

Like predators sniffing the scent of unprotected prey, anti-choice forces attacked with renewed vigor after the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling. A wide range of tactics were used to block women from obtaining abortions, to harass abortion rights supporters, and to undercut the majority’s support for a woman’s right to choose.

* Operation Rescue (called “Operation Oppress-You” by pro-choice activists) prevents women from receiving medical services, harasses clinic staffs, and assaults patients and pro-choice demonstrators. OR does not confine itself to terrorizing clinics. Many doctors no longer perform abortions due to OR’s activities which include picketing physicians’ homes and vandalizing doctors’ offices.

* Husbands and boyfriends have been encouraged and helped to seek court orders to prevent women from obtaining abortions.

* Anti-choice groups reached across the ocean to stop shipments to U.S. medical researchers of RU486, a French-manufactured pill used in abortion procedures. The drug is also a potential treatment for a form of breast cancer, AIDS, and an endocrine disorder called Cushing’s syndrome.

* About 2,000 fake abortion clinics were set up across the U.S. to scare women into continuing their pregnancies. Through misleading ads, the phony clinics suggested they offered abortions or related services. But women were confronted with so-called “counselors” who berated them as murderers, and women were forced to watch films suggesting they would bleed to death or lose the ability to bear children if they had an abortion.

* Opponents of legal abortion claimed a victory when American Telephone & Telegraph and Winn-Dixie supermarkets withdrew corporate financial support to Planned Parenthood.

* Southern California businesses were pressured by foes of abortion to cancel meeting rooms reserved by local chapters of Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women (NOW).

* The Chicago-based Americans United for Life mailed over 48,000 letters to lawyers urging them to oppose a policy endorsing a woman’s right to choose adopted by the American Bar Association’s governing body in February, 1990. The ABA’s House of Delegates, by a vote of 200 to 188, rejected the pro-choice position and approved a “neutral” position in August, 1990.

* Anti-abortion forces successfully pressured the AFL-CIO Executive Committee to adopt a “neutral position” on a woman’s right to choose. The National Right to Life Committee organized an aggressive letter-writing campaign urging that the labor body take no position on the abortion issue. Bulletin boards in some unionized work places displayed anti-choice posters distributed by the Ohio Right to Life Society. Roman Catholic church leaders publicly called on the AFL-CIO not to endorse a pro-choice position. Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York proposed that union members should be allowed to “send their [union] dues to the pro-life movement” if the labor leadership adopted a pro-choice position. Msgr. George Higgins wrote in his February 1, 1990, column: “If the [AFL-CIO] Executive Council adopts a pro-abortion resolution, it will radically disrupt the labor movement’s solidarity and seriously distract from the essential role of protecting the economic rights and interests of the members.” [“A Warning to the AFL-CIO,” Catholic New York]

* Bishop Rene Gracida excommunicated an abortion clinic director in a formal decree, stating, ’Your cooperation in procuring abortions is a sin against God and humanity and the laws of the Roman Catholic Church.” A statement by Cardinal John J. O’Connor threatened Catholic politicians with excommunication if they supported abortion rights. The National Council of Catholic Bishops hired a public relations firm to design an offensive against abortion rights groups and to affect public policy on the issue.

* Rev. Donald Wildmon, executive director of the Mississippi-based American Family Association, took partial credit for forcing NBC to drastically discount its normal advertising rates during the airing of the TV film “Roe vs. Wade” — at a loss of about $ 1 million for the network. Threatening a boycott of advertisers, Wildmon’s organization targeted CBS’s showing of “Absolute Strangers.” The TV movie recreated a New York husband’s fight against anti-choice groups trying to prevent a doctor-recommended abortion to help his comatose wife’s recovery after an auto accident.

* Church-organized human “life chains” — some in the form of a cross—were staged by anti-choice demonstrators during October 1990 and 1991.

* Using a telephone hookup from the White House, President Bush addressed the 1990 and ’91 rallies of the annual March for Life. He told the 1991 demonstrators to “make it your goal to keep this issue alive and predominant in Congress, the courts and in the minds of the American people.” While these events were taking place in Washington, D.C., other abortion opponents marched, rallied, and held church-organized events around the U.S. Vice President Quayle spoke in person to the April 28,1990, anti-abortion rally organized by the National Right to Life Committee, and Bush offered words of encouragement through a telephone message.

* During 1990-91, over a dozen pregnant women were charged with “fetal child abuse” or delivery of illegal drugs to a minor (that is, to a fetus through the umbilical cord). All of the prosecutions involved low-income women, most of whom were women of color. Claiming to be concerned over child welfare, seven states passed laws making drug use during pregnancy a crime, and have classified an infant born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome as an abused child. The far-reaching effects of the “fetal rights” concept are felt by men as well as women. For example, the ban on federal funding for medical studies using fetal tissue has affected research and treatment for Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and spinal cord injuries.

Webster Ruling Opens the Door

Anti-abortion lawmakers and lobbyists have sponsored a variety of bills ranging from a total ban on abortions to provisions designed to change public opinion. For example, they have proposed statutes which would bar sex-selection abortions — although only a tiny number of such abortions actually take place — in order to promote the idea that women seek the procedure for frivolous and morally repugnant reasons. In arguing for anti-abortion legislation, lawmakers use terms like “pre-born baby boys and girls” to implant mental pictures of living children being murdered by abortion procedures. At the federal level, a “human life amendment” has been proposed to define “personhood” as beginning with conception.

State legislatures hammer away at reproductive rights by passing laws to regulate medical facilities — making abortion accessibility difficult and more expensive — or through laws mandating spousal consent, a waiting period, or special conditions (rape, incest, endangering a woman’s life) before a woman can obtain an abortion. Legislators in some states adopted statutes with the express aim of taking legal challenges to the Supreme Court in order to completely overturn Roe v. Wade. By the fall of 1991, several laws were making their way through lower courts as likely candidates for such a ruling (Guam, Louisiana, Utah, Pennsylvania).

What happened in Pennsylvania shows the see-saw situation in many parts of the U.S. where defenders of a woman’s right to choose have been bounced from defeat to victory to defeat.

Pennsylvania legislators were the first to seize the opportunity presented by the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision giving states broad powers to limit abortion rights. Before the Webster ruling, the Supreme Court struck down key sections of the state’s 1982 abortion law, and in 1988 a federal judge blocked enforcement of a law requiring minors seeking abortions to get the consent of at least one parent or a court order. After Webster, however, a package of restrictive statutes were hurried through the legislative process. The Abortion Control Act contained provisions for a waiting period, criminalizing late abortions, and requiring medical tests and reporting procedures to discourage doctors from performing abortions. This is the way the “informed consent” section was described by abortion rights supporters: “Women would have to listen to anti-abortion lectures, then go home and wait a day before obtaining an abortion. Many women in Pennsylvania already have to travel hours from homes to obtain their abortions. A 24-hour waiting period makes their abortions much more expensive, and constitutes harassment of rural and poor women.”

Feminists and their allies fought back in a variety of ways. Pennsylvanians for Choice, a statewide coalition of over forty groups, organized a September 1989 rally and lobby day at the state capitol. Over twenty busloads from Philadelphia helped make this the largest lobby effort to date on any issue. The state affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) issued an “Action Alert” in October 1989 urging abortion rights supporters to protest the legislation through phone calls and letters. House parties were held for showings of the film “Abortion for Survival.” Tables were set up to collect signatures on petitions, register pro-choice voters, and promote upcoming state and national demonstrations. The National Organization for Women (NOW) Caravan for Women’s Lives toured the state and helped recruit ninety-one women to run for state offices — hoping to replace legislators with supporters of women’s rights. Feminist groups sprang up on campuses — many with a specific focus on abortion, and others with a strong interest in pro-choice issues as well as other women’s liberation concerns. Citywide coalitions fought the state’s Abortion Control Act, and built the 1989 national action.

On November 12, 1989, Pennsylvanians participated in the massive national mobilization in Washington, D.C. organized by NOW to support abortion rights. University of Pennsylvania students made up one of the largest college contingents in the march and rally. The Pittsburgh Press reported (November 13, 1989): “About 110 people, most of them from the Pittsburgh black community, traveled to the rally on three buses sponsored by Women of Color for Reproductive Freedom.” A founding member of the group told the reporter that African-Americans have a special interest in the abortion rights movement because they are most often affected by cuts in funding for abortion and contraception, and, “When abortion was illegal, 64 percent of women who died from botched abortions were black.”

The Abortion Control Act was signed by Pennsylvania’s governor in November 1989, and a court challenge to most provisions was carried out by Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania and several women’s clinics with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In January 1990 — only five days before the effective date of the law — a federal judge issued an injunction against the 24-hour waiting period, the requirement that women had to notify their spouses before having an abortion, and other key sections. The injunction was appealed by the state, and went to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Abortion rights supporters continued to battle restrictive legislation. For example, Pennsylvania NOW organized an October 1990 rally and lobby day at the state capitol “To Keep Abortion Safe & Legal.”

On October 21, 1991, a federal appeals court upheld most of the provisions in the Abortion Control Act — including requirements for a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent. The panel of three judges applied the approach of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who holds the view that courts should approve state abortion regulations which do not impose an “undue burden” or a “severe limitation” on a woman’s right to end an early pregnancy. Her position is considered a “moderate” one compared to Justices Rehnquist and White, who favor upholding all state regulations — and who are expected to vote for a complete overturn of Roe v. Wade at the first opportunity. With the addition of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court bench, it is expected that a majority of 5-6 justices will require compulsory pregnancies or force women to return to back-alley butchers and coathangers.

Commenting on the ruling in Pennsylvania, the attorney for Planned Parenthood and the clinics stated, ’They have said Roe v. Wade is no longer the law.” The general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee said, “We just want to get a case, any case, up there [to the Supreme Court] as soon as possible. I don’t have a preference on which case goes first.” If the Pennsylvania law is not the first to be heard by the Supreme Court, restrictive legislation from Louisiana, Guam, or Utah is waiting in the wings to take center stage in the drama being played out through the court system.

What Abortion Rights Forces Have Done, and What’s Needed Now

Women’s rights activists, galvanized by the Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster ruling, have carried out a wide variety of actions and campaigns — at the local, state, and national levels — to protect hard-won reproductive rights. A new generation of young women and men have joined with veterans of the women’s liberation movement in the fight against restrictive legislation, court rulings against a woman’s right to choose, and attacks by Operation Rescue against women’s health clinics. Women of color have organized themselves into activist groups and have participated in mobilizations and clinic defense. Union members have marched in demonstrations, and a number of labor organizations have adopted resolutions supporting women’s reproductive rights. Religious groups, civil libertarians, lesbian and gay rights activists, and others concerned with women’s rights are involved in reproductive rights projects and events. The strength and determination of pro-choice forces has been shown over and over again.

* Outraged over the Supreme Court’s Webster decision and over the lack of adequate support from politicians, delegates at the 1989 NOW National Conference adopted a “Declaration of Women’s Political Independence,” which led to the formation of an exploratory commission to investigate the possible creation of a new political party. The Commission for Responsive Democracy held hearings in seven major U.S. cities during 1990-91. On September 15,1991, the Commission voted to call for a new party, and to recommend that NOW provide leadership in bringing together broad forces to establish a new independent political party. This resolution was endorsed by the NOW National Board and will be presented to the 1992 National Conference.

* The largest abortion rights mobilization in U.S. history took place on November 12, 1989. Called into the streets by NOW, one million demonstrated in 150 cities. The largest rallies were held in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. Almost 20,000 students registered with NOW for the march and rally in the nation’s capital. Fifteen unions were among the many national endorsers; thousands of union members, organized in contingents, helped fill the lawn facing the Lincoln Memorial. The outpouring of demonstrators was a powerful expression of the majority’s support for a woman’s right to choose.

* Defense of women’s health clinics was carried out across the nation. Pro-choice demonstrators at clinics regularly outnumbered Operation Rescue blockaders, and trained escorts helped women enter facilities for a variety of services.

* Across the U.S., pro-choice activists engaged in numerous battles, including: fights against laws restricting abortion availability; efforts to preserve family planning programs in Title X of the Public Health Service Act; campaigns to expand birth control research and products; struggles to provide sex education in schools; and projects to secure U.S. research on and production of RU486. A variety of tactics were utilized: lawsuits, petitions, ballot initiatives and referenda, phone calls and letters, boycotts, large newspaper ads, meetings and conferences, public rallies, etc.

* Well-organized campaigning by feminists helped win elections for pro-choice candidates and helped defeat anti-abortion candidates and bills.

Immediately following the 1989 Webster ruling, abortion rights forces contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars plus invaluable energies to candidates who succeeded in winning governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia. In 1990, reacting to such election losses, a layer of Republicans defied the anti-abortion plank in the GOP national platform. Republicans for Choice was founded by Ann Stone, a direct-mail specialist for conservative causes. The 1991 Young Republican convention refused to endorse the GOP’s anti-abortion plank. An all-out battle at the 1992 Republican national convention was promised by 75 Republicans who supported abortion rights.

Major feminist organizations devoted human and financial resources to election activities. For example, NOW’s 1989 efforts in Florida helped prevent passage of legislation which would have crippled abortion accessibility for many women. In 1990, NOW’s president happily reported election victories for two female gubernatorial candidates, a woman elected as Mayor of Washington, B.C., and 45 women elected to statewide offices around the country; in addition, anti-abortion ballot measures were defeated in Oregon and Nevada. NOW’s “1991 Blueprint for Action” included plans to prevent passage of restrictive laws by state legislatures, to win codification of abortion rights by states, to recruit women candidates for elected state offices, and to pressure Congress to adopt the Freedom of Choice Act.

The Fund for the Feminist Majority highlighted Election Day 1990 as “an historic opportunity to change the state legislatures — those same male-dominated bodies which denied us the Equal Rights Amendment and which, if left unchallenged, will deny us our reproductive rights.” In 1990 and 1991, Fund President Eleanor Smeal urged a change in the composition of state legislatures “by electing more and more feminists.”

Defining itself as “the political arm of the pro-choice movement,” the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) explains it “has two mandates: to build a political infrastructure of pro-choice activists and voters to elect state and federal legislators, governors, and, ultimately, a President who will support and defend a woman’s right to choose; and to defeat anti-choice legislation both in state legislatures and Congress.”

Although pro-choice forces have had an electoral impact, abortion rights are in serious jeopardy as long as political action is confined to the two-party framework.

* Politicians elected on the basis of pro-choice statements failed to live up to their campaign pledges. For example, in the first election after the 1989 Webster decision, a California woman who was the only pro-choice Republican to run for state office became an Assemblywoman with the help of feminist campaigning. But once elected, she refused to speak at a pro-choice event and voted against or abstained from measures involving reproductive rights.

* Although Democrats hold the majority in Congress, the Freedom of Choice Act has not been adopted. Introduced in 1989, this legislation would establish the underlying principles of Roe v. Wade and prohibit states from passing laws restricting the right to choose.

* A bipartisan coalition in a U.S. House of Representatives committee approved a measure that would have effectively overturned the “gag rule” imposed on medical care workers in clinics receiving federal funds. Abortion rights supporters celebrated. But five days later, the House Pro-Choice Caucus backed off from pursuing this effort — explaining they lacked enough votes to override President Bush’s expected veto and feared a voter backlash. The House voted in June 1991 for an appropriations bill which included the provision to thwart the “gag rule” — sure of a Bush veto. A few weeks later the same game was played in the U.S. Senate. Legislation to cancel the “gag rule” was passed, but, like thieves hiding in the night, the senators would not take a roll call vote. Sen. Edward Kennedy (the darling of liberals and a supposed champion of women’s rights) boasted, “Both the House and the Senate have now convincingly repudiated the Reagan-Bush Administration’s gag rule regulations and reaffirmed the right of physicians to practice medicine without government censorship.” But the “gag rule” still lives!

* In 1990, Democrats helped confirm David Souter as a Supreme Court justice. The first abortion-related case to be heard by Souter was Rust v. Sullivan, and he provided the needed fifth vote to uphold the “gag rule.” When Souter was confirmed, NOW President Molly Yard explained: “... our ’friends’ on the Senate Judiciary Committee — those whose elections we have worked for and contributed to — did not press the nominee on the abortion rights question but were willing to approve him even though his answers to privacy rights were unclear....To add further insult to injury, some committee members were openly contemptuous of feminists who appeared before them to argue against Souter’s nomination!” In spite of feminist opposition to nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, he won a place on the Supreme Court because fourteen Democrats joined with Republicans to vote for confirmation.

As the saying goes: With “friends” like these, who needs enemies?

It is clear to increasing numbers of abortion rights supporters that it is not enough to simply elect more women or to simply elect more “good” politicians. That does not guarantee the fulfillment of campaign speeches or private pledges. At the same time, it is obvious that politics is a key arena for the fight to protect and expand reproductive rights. But we need to break out of this two-party swamp which is suffocating us with “lesser evil” choices, expedient compromises, betrayals piled on top of broken promises, and cynical maneuvers designed to capture votes and funds and volunteer campaigners.

What we need is independent political action. Independent political action in the streets — with massive mobilizations like the ones held in 1989. And independent political action within the electoral and legislative process — as projected by the NOW Commission for Responsive Democracy, which called for a new party “dedicated to equality, social and economic justice, demilitarization and a healthy environment.” This is not a projection for a “one-issue party” nor a “women’s party” but a call to join with other forces in U.S. society whose needs are denied and frustrated by the two-party monopoly on political power.

Feminists can be prime movers in the transformation of U.S. politics. Add your voice to those now saying: We’re not going to take this any more! We choose to create a party of our own to fight for our needs and answerable to us!


Chapter II
A Winning Strategy to Safeguard Reproductive Rights

Independent political action — in the streets and in the electoral process — is urgently needed to ward off the blows against abortion rights.

Marches, rallies, demonstrations, and mobilizations are forms of mass lobbying. This kind of political action is a most effective way to make officeholders act in accordance with the demands of the majority. State legislators, governors, county officials, and city council members dare not ignore the majority if their goal is to remain in office or to use local and state offices as stepping stones to higher positions. U.S. Supreme Court justices have life tenure — but politicians must win votes in election after election.

Since abortion was legalized in 1973, politicians have played political games knowing that no matter how they voted, the results would be of no consequence because courts would uphold the principles involved in Roe v. Wade. The rules of the game have now changed. Politicians can no longer utilize vote-catching maneuvers or point to other women’s rights issues they have supported. Their votes on proposed laws now count in crucial ways either to uphold abortion rights or to deny women’s ability to determine their reproductive choices.

Speaking for many legislators, Representative Myron Kulas explained in 1989 that most officeholders “wished the Supreme Court would have left [the abortion law] where it was at.” The Chicago Democrat had voted with abortion opponents but said he was “leaning toward pro-choice” in the aftermath of the Court’s 1989 Webster decision. Similar shifts were voiced by other elected officials who found themselves caught between an increasingly conservative Supreme Court and pro-choice supporters who expressed themselves through the massive November 12, 1989, mobilization and continued widespread protest actions. The reproductive rights movement must keep the heat on elected officials — and on judges who are influenced by the political climate.

Mobilizations magnify our impact on political life, energize activists to carry out more effective local and state pro-choice projects, inspire people to become politically active for the first time, and attract more allies to our cause.

A Mass Action Approach

The majority of the U.S. population continues to support a woman’s right to choose. But numbers in public opinion polls are obviously not enough to safeguard and extend women’s reproductive rights. The majority’s pro-choice sentiment needs to be expressed forcefully and repeatedly in massive public demonstrations which deliver the clear demand to keep abortions legal, safe, accessible, and affordable.

When tens and hundreds of thousands gather together in one place at one time for one purpose it inspires a unique sense of unity and power.

The enthusiasm created by national actions helps sustain activists through difficult battles at the state and local levels. When we are interconnected through national events and campaigns, each local and state victory will invigorate pro-choice fighters in other parts of the country. Weaknesses in a particular regional, state, or local situation can be compensated and overcome by strengths at the national level.

NOW’s call for the two mobilizations in 1989 (April 9 and November 12) spurred the creation of local groups and city wide coalitions, and attracted many thousands who had never been involved in such activity before. Major unions endorsed the national mobilization and helped organize labor delegations. A rash of new student feminist groups broke out across the nation, and many continue to be active today. NOW estimated that 40 percent of the marchers on April 9 were men; a large proportion of the November actions also included males. The extraordinary turnout of men shows the wide support for women’s rights which exists in the U.S. As with numerous female marchers, many males said they were participating in such an event for the first time in their lives. The Women of Color for Reproductive Rights contingent in the November mobilization in Washington, B.C., marked a significant involvement in the struggle by African-American, Latina, and Asian women.

NOW’s call for a national mobilization in the spring of 1992 is exactly the right step in mobilizing the forces needed for a sustained campaign to preserve and expand women’s reproductive rights. As with the 1989 mobilizations, building the 1992 event will:

* draw individuals out of the “silent majority” and start them on the road to persistent activism;

* spur the formation of ongoing groups which help provide a solid basis for continued efforts at all levels—local, state, regional, and national;

* create connections between women’s rights activists and those fighting battles on other fronts.

Marching Shoulder to Shoulder

Mass actions serve as a way to dramatize the support of our allies. Civil liberties organizations have consistently aided our efforts. Many religious groups have voiced unconditional support for women’s right to choose, and have helped swell the ranks of clinic defenders facing attacks by Operation Rescue. Catholics for a Free Choice and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights participate in demonstrations and carry out activities to educate the public about the diversity of opinion within the religious community on the abortion issue. The lesbian and gay rights movement strongly supports feminist demands and provides large contingents in demonstrations.

Mass actions bring together all of our allies. This has an impact on general public consciousness. When people see television news programs, read newspaper and magazine reports, and see the photographs, they learn that reproductive rights is not a narrow matter of interest to a small dedicated band of feminists — it’s an issue of concern to broad layers of U.S. society. This helps us gain support from more groups and from more sections of the population. Each time we win a new ally in our struggle to control our own bodies, it promotes collaboration with other forces. And the most vivid way to display the wide-ranging support for choice is by joining together in massive public events again and again.

Experience has shown that one huge demonstration was not enough to gain female suffrage, to win civil rights demands, and to end the war in Vietnam. Repeated mobilizations are necessary. Those who oppose our goals need to be convinced that we will not give up and that we will prevail! Silent supporters need to be encouraged to express open solidarity with our struggle — and history proves that they will join us in the streets when they see our determination to keep on fighting until our goal is won.

Independent Electoral Action

Mobilizations are invaluable vehicles for publicizing and organizing the kind of independent political action we need at this time. Let your imagination run free. Imagine what could be done when 600,000 gather in Washington, D.C., or 100,000 rally in Los Angeles, or 20,000 march in Austin, Texas, or 14,000 hold a mass action in Jefferson City, Missouri, or 6,000 demonstrate in Seattle (as happened in November, 1989).

Tables can be set up to register voters. Millions of eligible citizens do not vote in elections because, according to many studies, they are alienated from the existing political process, frustrated over politicians’ broken promises, and not convinced that either major party will help resolve critical social and economic problems. Given a real alternative — a new party with a program to meet their needs and accountable candidates — they can be convinced to register and vote. Others will happily re-register — out of the Democratic and Republican parties and into a new independent political party.

Volunteer campaign workers can sign up to help get a new party on state ballots, and to elect a new breed of candidates. Demonstrators can sign petitions to get candidates and new party tickets on state ballots.

Rally speeches can promote the organization of a new independent political party. Instead of the usual program overloaded with Democratic and Republican officeholders and candidates, demonstrators can hear talks by independent candidates and new party builders.

Banners, signs, t-shirts, and buttons can be utilized to promote independent political action. Leaflets, educating about and promoting a new party, can be distributed. Collection buckets can be circulated to gather money for independent political activities.

Buses and trains going to the mobilization and returning home can serve as moving meeting rooms for discussions about the need for breaking out of the Democratic-Republican trap. Petitions can be passed around. Voters can be registered. Plans can be made for post-demonstration activities.

Mobilizations can stimulate movement in the direction of independent political action, and can provide means for sustaining independent political activities.

New Party Developments

Feminists are taking significant steps on the road to independent political action. NOW is playing a key role in this development by: pointing out the failures of the Democratic and Republican parties, exploring the possibilities for creating a new party, and offering an outline of a broad political platform addressing the needs of both women and men, working people, youths and old persons, racial and ethnic minorities, lesbians and gays, opponents of war, and environmentalists.

Young women are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the new party concept. At the New York hearings of the NOW Commission for Responsive Democracy, support for a new party was voiced by a representative of Students Organizing Students, a national organization formed the day after the Webster decision and with chapters on over 100 campuses. At the first-ever Young Feminist Conference, organized by NOW and held in February 1991, a majority of the young women voted for a resolution recommending “that NOW join forces with other interested groups to initiate a call for a new party.”

Young females are a special target of anti-choice forces. The tragedy of 17-year-old Becky Bell, who died in 1988 from a botched illegal abortion, is remembered at rallies and public meetings, and in the film “Abortion Denied: Shattering Young Women’s Lives.” Bell felt unable to tell her parents about her pregnancy and could not obtain a legal abortion because of an Indiana law requiring parental consent. To protest such laws, Karen and Bill Bell have been speaking at events around the U.S., talking to the media, and testifying at legislative hearings. The father told a reporter that “when Becky made her decision not to come to us, the laws, the way they are now, prevented her from getting safe medical care. So the pain that we live with now, the nightmare we face every day, is because others dictated what she must do when she needed help the most.” [On the Issues magazine, Winter 1990]

At the time Bill Bell said that, 33 states had laws in place requiring parental notification or consent before a minor female could get an abortion. Most laws faced legal challenges or were declared unconstitutional by lower courts—but the Supreme Court has now issued its ruling upholding a state’s right to enforce such a law. As of the fall of 1991,41 states have passed parental consent or parental notification laws. Although many are involved in court proceedings, the Supreme Court has decided that such state restrictions are constitutional. A drastic change in political power is obviously a life-and-death question for young women.

Women are not the only victims of politicians’ betrayals and judicial actions overturning previous gains. Women are not the only ones alienated from “politics as usual” and, in particular, from the Democratic and Republican parties. Feminists are not the only ones talking about and taking steps toward a new political party. There are also promising developments in the labor movement and in communities of oppressed racial and ethnic minorities.

Labor Party Activities

Research studies and polls have repeatedly shown that trade unionists feel that neither Democrats nor Republicans represent the interests of working people, that the two major parties “care more about Big Business than they do about working people,” and that “it is time for the trade unions to build a new political party of working people independent of the two major parties.”

Labor Party Advocates was launched early in 1991 by Tony Mazzocchi, a well-known and respected leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. In his invitation to potential Charter Members, Mazzocchi explained:

For the past fifty years, the labor movement has been trying to pressure the two major parties, especially the Democrats, to adopt a more pro-worker agenda. Millions of dollars, thousands of volunteer hours, and hundreds of endorsements later, what do we have to show for our efforts?... The people who actually call the shots in the Democratic and Republican parties long ago gave up even pretending to represent the interests of working people... The Democrats in Congress blame the Republicans in The White House. The Republicans in The White House blame the Democrats in Congress. In fact, both are to blame. And millions of Americans know it. In the 1990 Congressional election, only 35 percent of the electorate bothered to go to the polls. The rest of us stayed home — voting, in effect, for None of the Above.

Enough is enough. The bosses have two parties. Working people should have at least one. It is time for the labor movement to organize its own independent party of working people.

The response from union members around the country has been immediate and favorable. Mazzocchi and other Labor Party Advocates members have spoken at meetings in many cities, and the media has been publishing reports about LPA.

In considering the labor movement — organized and unorganized — it’s important to remember that women now make up almost half of the work force and a growing percentage of union members. This gives women additional reason for supporting and building a new party.

Women of Color and Political Action

Sentiments for independent political action exist among African-Americans. A leading figure in this regard is Ron Daniels, formerly a deputy campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Daniels is projecting an independent campaign for the 1992 election for U.S. President. He testified in favor of a new party at the final hearing of NOW’s Commission for Responsive Democracy and has talked with Labor Party Advocates about “how we can work together, even combine our efforts.” In an article entitled “How Labor Can Regain Its Vision and Vitality,” Daniels proposed:

Break the monopoly of the two-party system. As the Democratic has followed the Republican Party to the right, the agendas of African-Americans, minorities, poor and working people and labor have become viewed as “special interests” which are a liability to the Democratic Party. The “competence not ideology” line in the 1988 election was a reflection of this tendency within the Democratic Party. What we have is a tired labor movement tied to a tired Democratic Party. The progressive movement must build an independent third party which can clearly and unapologetically articulate a vision, a progressive program for a new society. Labor should play a leading role in that process....

We face a life and death challenge of building a new majority for a peace dividend and a socially responsible economy, an economy which places people over profits in providing for full employment, housing, health care, education and a wholesome environment. [Labor Notes, May 1991]

Women of color have a special stake in asserting their independence from the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Winter 1990 issue of Vital Signs, the newspaper of the National Black Women’s Health Project, carried articles analyzing the impact of the Webster decision on women of color, the racist character of Operation Rescue, Black women’s abortion experiences, reproductive health as a global concern, participation in the abortion rights struggle, RU486 and new contraceptive developments, and the lack of Medicaid funding for abortions. Here are some of the points made:

* “Women will not stop having abortions; they will stop having safe abortions.”

* “Because the majority of women seeking services from public hospitals are women of color, laws similar to Missouri’s [upheld in the Supreme Court’s Webster decision] would severely limit access to not only abortion services, but also information, counseling, and funding for all related reproductive health-care problems....Webster demonstrates that the anti-abortion war is being fought primarily against poor women and women of color. We cannot permit our lack of economic clout nor our limited political clout, to strip us of our right to bodily integrity and self-determination.”

* “... Black women exist in a mass of contradictions about abortion. News cameras usually don’t find us when we speak out for abortion rights, so we are assumed to be anti-choice because of the strident voices of anti-abortion Blacks. Yet we silently speak with our feet, walking into abortion clinics in a 2-to-l ratio....Of course, Black anti-choice activists call abortion genocide. We should not be surprised or confused by this tactic.. .we should see this tactic as a diversion, one we easily recognize as a familiar tune.”

* “We know the consequences when women are forced to make choices without protection — the coathangers and knitting needles that punctured the wombs of women forced to seek back-alley abortions on kitchen tables at the hands of butchers. The women who died screaming in agony, awash in their own blood. The women who were made sterile. All the women who endured the pain of makeshift surgery with no anesthetics, risked fatal infection.

“We understand why African-American women risked their lives then, and why they seek legal abortions now. It’s been a matter of survival. Hunger and homelessness. Inadequate housing and income to properly provide for themselves and their children. Family instability. Rape. Incest. Abuse. Too young, too old, too sick, too tired. Emotional, physical, economic, social—the reasons for not carrying a pregnancy to term are endless and varied, personal, urgent, and private. And for all these pressing reasons, African-American women once again will be among the first forced to risk their lives if abortion is made illegal.”

* “Oppression is the absence of choice.”

La Gente, a student newspaper at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), described in a February 1990 article “what’s it like to be dark, young, poor, and pregnant.” The writer explained that Latinas “are the ones most affected by any decision the Supreme Court makes regarding abortion.” Outlining the conditions in public health clinics, La Gente noted: “It is no surprise that most women who have had late abortions are poor women. These women can’t afford a trip to Paris or the nearest free state and pay a private doctor for a safe and legal abortion.” Rosie Jimenez, a 27-year-old mother who died in 1977 from an illegal abortion in Texas, remains a potent symbol for pro-choice activists today. Jimenez could not pay for a safe and legal procedure after Medicaid funding for abortions was cut off by the federal government.

While Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was dodging questions about his views on abortion, newspapers reported the latest survey on reproductive health attitudes of minority women. The results were clear: a majority want to keep abortion legal. The National Council of Negro Women along with a New York research and consulting firm interviewed 1,157 Black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American women. About three-fourths agreed that the decision to have an abortion must be one made by each woman for herself. Among Hispanic women, 55 percent agreed it was a woman’s choice alone. The director of the National Latina Health Organization explained, “Some of us who were Catholic left the church over these issues. Some of us who remain Catholic continue to use birth control and get abortions in spite of the teachings of the church.... Even though we are only 8 percent of the population, we get 13 percent of all abortions. This is proof that despite any moral, cultural, or religious teachings, we will do what our realities dictate.”

Independent political action — to meet their reproductive, economic, educational, and equality needs — is the most promising route for women of color who have been pushed down into the bottom of U.S. society.

An Exciting Potential

The three current developments toward independent political action have their own dynamics and priorities. But their demands are not counterposed nor mutually exclusive. On the contrary, there is a substantial overlap of human forces, goals, and needs. Women are involved in all of the movements currently projecting some form of new party activity. We must make sure our objectives are incorporated into independent political action efforts. We can help provide common links between all new party forms.

The potential exists for incorporating many millions into an independent political party launched by any of the forces prepared to reshape U.S. politics. Feminists, working people, and members of racial and ethnic minorities who support a break with the Democratic and Republican parties are raising political discussions to a new level, are helping to break through old habits, and are challenging traditional ways of thinking. Any one of the movements, or a combination of two or all, could make the giant leap necessary to turn political power into a real force which will begin answering the needs of the majority of the population.


Chapter III
The Fight to Win Legal Abortions

Placing independent political action on the feminist agenda is one example of the dynamics inherent in a serious struggle for women’s reproductive rights. A look at the 1969-72 fight to repeal abortion laws shows how those battles helped develop women’s skills and abilities, increased women’s confidence in their own independent power, unified feminists in campaigns and actions, involved large numbers of previously inactive women, enlisted allies for women’s rights, and encouraged feminists to break new ground in understanding and redefining women’s roles in society.

The record of accomplishments during that successful effort showed the crucial importance of a self-reliant approach in determining our demands and forms of activity. The record shows how scattered local activities escalated to statewide campaigns punctuated by nationally-coordinated actions. The record also shows the key role played by a strategy of pursuing our fight by involving the greatest number of people in highly visible public events with a clear focus.

Knowledge of abortion rights battles of the early 1970s has been overshadowed by the bright victory in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman’s right to choose. Current media reports contrast the “liberal court” of 1973 to the “conservative Reagan-era justices” of today. But the Roe v. Wade decision was not merely an expression of the attitudes of judges. It was won by persistent battles waged by women, and was heavily influenced by the social protest movements exploding in the U.S. beginning with the civil rights struggle in the mid-1950s and continuing through the 1960s’ student rebellion, the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Chicano liberation struggle, and the lesbian and gay rights movement.

The centrality of the abortion issue was demonstrated when the women’s liberation movement emerged as a nationally-recognized organized force in 1969. An immediate goal of the fight to repeal abortion laws was to save women’s lives — too many had already died from illegal butcher operations and self-induced abortions; more were fated to die — but long-range, fundamental needs were involved as well. Every aspect of a woman’s existence is affected by reproductive choices: her role in society, educational pursuits, job opportunities, physical and mental health, patterns of daily life, and personal relationships.

Repeal Activities During 1970

The following examples indicate the variety of organized activities and groups throughout the U.S. for repeal of state abortion laws.

On January 15,1970, public hearings began on a suit brought by New York Women’s Liberation challenging the state’s abortion law as unconstitutional because it denied women the right to privacy in their personal and sexual associations, and their right to life and liberty by curtailing control over their own motherhood. Four days later, about 100 attended a New York City planning meeting called by People to Abolish Abortion Laws, a coalition initiated by about forty-five women’s liberation groups. Participants called for a demonstration, and on March 28, 3,000 people held the first mass protest action in U.S. history calling for free abortion on demand. Such activities proved highly successful in abolishing the state’s anti-abortion statute. When Governor Rockefeller signed the new law legalizing abortions, he said, “Women’s liberation played an important part in the passage of this bill.”

On January 12, over 100 demonstrated at the capitol in Washington state demanding repeal of abortion laws. The action was called by the Women’s Liberation Front and Radical Women.

In February 1970, the Michigan Organization for Repeal of Abortion Laws (MORAL) was formed. At a March 7 statewide conference, attended by 250, plans were made to organize a demonstration at the state capitol. In mid-March, 500 women attended Michigan senate hearings on abortion laws and heard feminists argue for repeal.

An audience of 300, mostly women, was present at a March 4 hearing on Massachusetts’ abortion law.

Over a hundred picketed an Atlanta, Georgia, hospital during March, demanding “Free and Voluntary Abortions,” “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” and “24-Hour Day Care Centers.” This was the first major women’s liberation action in the city and was organized by the Atlanta International Women’s Day Committee, a broad coalition of women’s groups.

Male supporters joined with 300 women in an April 23 demonstration on the steps of Philadelphia’s city hall. They demanded repeal of Pennsylvania’s 110-year-old abortion law. This action was followed by the formation of Women United for Free Abortion to continue the repeal fight.

In Texas, Austin Women’s Liberation carried out a petition drive to repeal the state’s 114-year-old abortion laws and undertook activities to support the lawsuit of Roe v. Wade. In July, the U.S. District Court in Dallas ruled that Texas abortion laws were unconstitutional. Although abortion laws in other states had been overturned by courts, this was the first time judges had asserted women’s basic right to control their child-bearing functions. This victory in Texas, which was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, encouraged continued and more aggressive pro-choice actions by feminists who founded the Texas Abortion Coalition, a statewide organization encompassing a broad range of groups.

A June 30 hearing by the California Senate was attended by about 250, wearing pro-abortion buttons and carrying red coat hangers.

The 1970 convention of United Presbyterian Women voted for abolition of all restrictions on abortion. This indicated the broad and growing support for this demand. The abolition of abortion laws was also supported in a resolution adopted by Teamsters Local 688 at a city-wide shop conference held in St. Louis.

The first nationally-coordinated actions with a focus on abortion took place during the Women’s Strike for Equality held on August 26, 1970. Initiated by NOW, many thousands participated in marches, rallies, and demonstrations organized by groups and coalitions across the U.S. The largest action took place in New York City, where 35,000-40,000 marched.

The Fight Intensifies During 1971

During the first part of 1971, repeal or revision of state laws on abortion was proposed by legislators in almost every state. Ten appeals of suits challenging the constitutionality of state abortion laws were pending before the U.S. Supreme Court: Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. Women and their allies did not sit back and wait for the appeal process to crawl through the court system.

Women from several Twin Cities women’s liberation groups picketed an anti-abortion banquet in St. Paul on January 12, 1971. The Abortion Action Coalition organized an April 3 demonstration at the governor’s mansion calling for the total repeal of all abortion laws. The demonstrators also rallied on the steps of the state capitol in the largest abortion action ever held for women’s rights in the state.

Over 200 women met at the University of California-Berkeley to form a comprehensive female liberation group to address a range of issues: needs of campus women, abortion rights, equal pay, and child care. This was one of many student groups around the country concerned with the abortion situation.

The Texas Abortion Coalition (TAG) held a “Citizens Hearing on Abortion” on January 30 in Austin. About half of the 600 participants then marched to the State Capitol Building where they held a rally to pressure lawmakers reviewing the state’s criminal statutes. When the State Senate held formal hearings on abortion statutes on March 29, TAG organized witnesses and 500 pro-choice supporters who packed the galleries wearing buttons and holding signs favoring legalization of abortion.

Groups fighting for the repeal of Illinois’ ninety-seven-year-old abortion law won a major victory when a three-judge federal panel ruled the law unconstitutional because it was vague and interfered with “a woman’s interest in privacy and in counsel over her body.” The suit was brought by three women and four university medical students.

New York City’s Women’s Strike Coalition fought to preserve and extend newly-won abortion rights. Almost 1,000 women from around the state demonstrated in Albany on March 27 to protest legislators’ attempts to weaken the liberalized abortion law adopted in 1970. The lead banner at the demonstration read, “We Demand Power over Our Bodies — Repeal All Abortion and Contraception Laws.”

On March 23, 1,500 women packed hearings held in Boston by a state legislators’ committee on possible repeal of Massachusetts’ 125-year-old statute prohibiting abortion. During the committee’s lunch break, a rally on Boston Common was organized by the Massachusetts Organization for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and the New England Women’s Coalition. A class action suit to repeal the state’s abortion laws was approved by the 800 women attending the first New England Congress to Unite Women. Held in Boston on March 27-28, the conference was organized by the New England Women’s Coalition, a grouping which grew out of organizing for the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality.

Members of the High School Women’s Coalition in New York City appeared before the Board of Education on April 20 to demand birth control and abortion counseling and referral services for all high school females in the city. They presented petitions with almost 10,000 signatures of students and teachers.

On May 15, 500 women marched through downtown Chicago and rallied in the Civic Center calling for free abortion on demand, free 24-hour day-care center centers, and equal opportunities in education and employment.

The Metropolitan Abortion Alliance of Washington, D.C., called a May 15 rally attended by 200. The coalition initiated a campaign for free abortion on demand and no forced sterilization. On July 13 the D.C. General Hospital was picketed to demand: open an outpatient abortion clinic, inform the public about your abortion facilities, and remove requirements for parents’ and husbands’ consent for abortion procedures.

Nearly 600 attended the first-ever national Chicana conference held in Houston May 28-30. One of the workshop resolutions stated: ’Tree, legal abortions and birth control for the Chicano Community, controlled by Chicanas. As Chicanas we have the right to control our own bodies.”

Over 100 women participated in the first Bay Area “Women’s Speak-Out for Abortion Law Repeal” on July 17. In Los Angeles, over 65 women attended a July 11 speak-out sponsored by the Women’s Abortion Action Committee.

The biennial convention of the United Church of Christ called for the repeal of all legal prohibitions on abortions performed by doctors. The June 29 declaration stated that voluntary and safe abortions should be available to all women.

Over 300 women rallied in downtown Detroit on August 31 and then marched to the City-County Building to file a class action suit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s abortion law. Over twenty class action suits had been brought by women across the country by this time including: more than 1,000 female plaintiffs in a New Jersey lawsuit, over 1,000 Pennsylvania women, about 900 women in Connecticut, 100 Rhode Island women, about 200 women in Massachusetts.

The campaign to repeal abortion laws had generated a variety of organizations and a broad range of activities. In addition to the groups already noted, there were: the Minot Women’s Liberation in North Dakota, the Indiana Abortion Law Repeal Coalition, Total Repeal of Illinois Abortion Laws (TRIAL), Rhode Island Coalition to Repeal Abortion Laws, and Coloradans to Abolish All Abortion Laws. Add to the events already described: debates with anti-choice representatives, numerous literature distributions on campuses, teach-ins, press conferences, an “Abortion Crimes Tribunal” in Detroit, defense campaigns for doctors indicted for performing abortions, and a support campaign for Shirley Wheeler, the first U.S. woman convicted for having an abortion.

National Coalition Formed

On July 16-18, 1971, over 1,000 women met in New York City for the first broad national gathering to plan an action campaign for repeal of abortion laws. Participants included women from twenty-nine states and four countries (Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden). Among the 244 organizations represented there were forty-seven abortion groups, thirty-six campus women’s liberation organizations, twenty-one NOW chapters, eleven trade unions, and some welfare and religious groups. The conference established the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) and approved November 20 mass marches in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Among the many local affiliates of WONAAC were groups in Boston, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Chicago, Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Atlanta, Albuquerque, Madison (Wisconsin), and Lansing and Ann Arbor in Michigan.

The fall marches organized by WONAAC were the first united national actions focused completely on abortion. The Washington, D.C., action was the first feminist march in the nation’s capital since 5,000 women demonstrated in 1913 for the right to vote. The 1971 marches were spirited and broad—involving young and old, Anglos, Blacks, and Chicanos, and a range of groups. But the number of participants was relatively small: over 3,000 in Washington, D.C., and 3,000 in San Francisco.

The main weakness was the lack of support and involvement by major feminist organizations and leaders who had shifted their priorities to electoral activities aimed at the two major parties. They were gearing up to get involved in the 1972 campaigns. The Women’s National Political Caucus was founded July 10-11, 1971, in Washington, D.C. Betty Friedan, one of its initiators, told the August 26, 1971, rally in New York City, “We are now moving from women’s liberation to women’s participation in equal political power.” At its Fifth National Conference, held September 4-6, 1971, in Los Angeles, NOW took no action on resolutions for and against supporting WONAAC and endorsing the November actions — but local NOW chapters were free to decide for themselves how to relate to the fall demonstrations.

Feminists around the country continued to feel the need to unify and coordinate their efforts to legalize abortion. On February 11-13, 1972, the Second National Women’s Abortion Conference was held in Boston — and drew more women than the first. The 1,300 participants agreed on a strategy for fighting abortion laws through the courts and state legislatures, and by marching in the streets. They approved focusing on demands to repeal all restrictive abortion and contraception laws, and to end forced sterilization. May 1-6 was designated “Abortion Action Week.”

The May events included marches in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, and Sacramento. Other activities were: picket lines, assemblies in high schools, rallies, tribunals on college campuses, and television debates. Although widespread, the actions were small: for example, between 1,500-2,000 marched in New York City. In keeping with its 1971 national conference decision NOW was not involved as a national organization, but many NOW chapters and members were part of the Abortion Action Week.

The Third National WONAAC Conference was held in New York City July 15-16, 1972. Attended by 800 women, the conference called for an international tribunal on abortion rights and a national demonstration in New York City in the fall. Participants also voted to carry out a petition campaign to support the Abortion Rights Act introduced by Representative Bella Abzug. The bill would have repealed all state and federal laws restricting a woman’s right to abortion.

More than 500 attended the WONAAC-organized “Abortion Hearings in Defense of a Woman’s Right to Choose” held October 10-11 in New York City. Similar hearings in other cities across the country involved: over 500 in Boulder, Colorado; 300 in Boston; over 200 in Atlanta; 175 in Cleveland; almost 100 in Houston. Hearings followed by marches and rallies were held in Denver, Berkeley, and Portland, Oregon.

Local and State Activities During 1972

In addition to the nationally-coordinated events organized by WONAAC, local and state groups pursued a variety of activities during 1972 to keep up the pressure for legalization of abortions. The issue was a major topic at a February 13 conference in St. Louis for female members of Teamsters Local 688. Meeting to discuss problems faced by working women, the unionists agreed that “abortion was a medical question between a woman and her doctor — not a matter for state law or church doctrine.” This statement was reported in an article published in Missouri Teamsters, the union’s newspaper.

By March of 1972, courts had struck down all or parts of anti-abortion laws in New Jersey, Vermont, Florida, and Virginia. In November, the California Supreme Court ruled that key sections of the state’s 1967 law were unconstitutional. Throwing out these restrictions meant that, for the first time, California women had the right to choose. On-going efforts to weaken New York’s liberalized abortion law were foiled again and again by supporters of women’s reproductive rights.

Feminists carried out a successful petition campaign to place a referendum on the state ballot asking: “Should the Commonwealth of Massachusetts repeal its abortion laws, thereby making abortion a private matter between a woman and her physician?” The measure was passed by the voters.

A great deal of feminist energy was channeled into the 1972 presidential campaign of Democratic candidate George McGovern. This resulted in a drop in the number of specifically pro-choice events. As 1972 drew to a close, however, feminists made it clear that the issue would be kept alive. Groups announced events to be held in 1973. For example, an abortion rights rally was set for March 10, 1973, in San Francisco to protest Governor Ronald Reagan’s statements against abortion. WONAAC gained many endorsements for and publicity about its ’International Tribunal on Abortion, Contraception, and Forced Sterilization” set for March 9-11 in New York City.

Landmark Court Decision in 1973

The situation was transformed when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its ruling in Roe v. Wade on January 22,1973. Having won that historic decision, abortion rights forces demobilized. Since 1973, pro-choice forces responded — mostly through defensive legal actions — to attacks against women’s basic right to choose. For example, repeated efforts to cut Medicaid funding for abortion services were answered by lawsuits challenging such moves. But these defensive responses did not have the intensity and breadth of the 1970-72 activities. A number of interrelated factors accounted for this low-key approach to protecting reproductive rights:

* the legalization of abortion attracted much broader and active support than the problems of funding or accessibility for teenagers;

* the composition of the women’s liberation movement was overwhelmingly white/Anglo women with sufficient financial resources to escape the restrictions affecting poor women, members of oppressed national minorities (Blacks and Latinas especially), and legally underage females;

* feminist energies were channeled into a major ten-year campaign to add the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution (1972-82) — a campaign which depended on the good will and votes of politicians who approved abortion restrictions;

* women’s liberation activists were involved in a wide range of efforts such as gaining political offices, establishing rape crisis centers, instituting women’s studies programs, promoting non-sexist educational practices and materials, breaking out of the “pink-collar ghetto” of female-dominated jobs, and challenging discrimination against women in the legal system, the medical establishment, religious organizations, and other institutions in U.S. society.

While feminist efforts were continuing to have a profound impact on long-established attitudes and practices, anti-choice forces carried out a steady and mounting campaign against the historic victory won in the Roe v. Wade decision.



Chapter IV
Attacks by Anti-Choice Terrorists

Unable to prevent women from exercising their legal reproductive rights, anti-choice forces targeted women’s health clinics and medical providers. Terrorist tactics against clinics included arson, bombings, vandalism, hate mail, and threatening phone calls. In mid-1988 national attention was focused on this problem when Operation Rescue (OR) launched its campaign to blockade women’s health services clinics, and to harass women seeking counseling and medical services.

In an October 30, 1991, NBC national television news program, OR head Randall Terry explained that his organization saw doctors as “the weakest link” in the abortion process. Accordingly, OR has intimidated many doctors to the point where they no longer perform any abortion services. The news program showed a doctor’s home bearing the spray-painted charge “Baby Killer,” and a vandalized physician’s office with broken equipment and spray-painted “Baby Killer” on the wall. One doctor told the TV reporter about being picketed by OR while attending church and about his children being screamed at by OR activists while at school.

The double whammy delivered by OR and legislative actions had disastrous results for women; for example, 87 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion providers or services. Some physicians, concerned about women’s health, travel from their home locations to other counties and states to meet women’s needs.

OR’s strategy has been clear: to physically prevent women from securing abortion counseling and procedures; to force medical facilities and staff to stop providing abortion-related services; and, to influence public opinion against the termination of pregnancies for any reason. Abortion rights supporters must design and carry out activities to foil these OR goals. Clinic defense is necessary — training escorts to assist women into clinics, encouraging directors to maintain their facilities, convincing medical personnel to continue to meet women’s health needs, and offering protective services as required. All of these responsibilities must be carried out in a way that creates a favorable impression on the public consciousness, in a way that sustains the majority’s support for a woman’s right to choose, and in a way that exposes OR’s arrogant insistence on forcing their beliefs on others.

Experience has proven that the most successful efforts to counter OR have followed a mass action strategy: rallying the largest number of people in highly visible, spirited, and clearly focused demonstrations organized on the basis of exercising constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of association, assembly, and speech. This kind of strategy accomplishes many things. It keeps the clinics open and functioning, provides support for clinic staffs and directors, educates the public about women’s reproductive needs and rights, and reinforces the majority’s pro-choice attitude.

Organizing legal, peaceful clinic defense actions is necessary in order to bring together the largest possible number of people. Entire families—parents and young children — have participated in clinic defense actions. This has helped counter the false argument that defenders of abortion rights “hate children” and are “pro-death.” Previously inactive persons have been attracted to clinic defense actions because they have been outraged by seeing OR physically grabbing and screaming at women trying to enter clinics, and by OR pushing photos of fetuses into the faces of clinic clients. Members of religious and civil liberties groups have participated in legal and peaceful demonstrations—but they would be repelled by pro-choice actions which utilize OR’s brutal and anti-democratic techniques.

Supporters of women’s rights are encouraged to speak out against OR when pro-choice actions are broadly-based, numerically significant, and organized to stress democratic values as opposed to the intolerance and abuse exhibited by OR zealots.

Although designed to be peaceful, some events have resulted in violence due to OR’s tactics. Clinic defenders need to take such a possibility into account and to organize demonstrators so that harm is minimized and, if it occurs, it is absolutely clear that the fault lies with OR and not with those who are protecting women’s democratic rights. OR’s true nature is then exposed and clinic defenders will gain more support. Organizing for self-defense or for the expression of free speech, however, is far different than offensive actions which employ the same attack methods as OR. Such actions cause confusion by making it appear that both sides are equally to blame. The pro-choice struggle is not helped by alienating the majority which supports the democratic right of women to control their own bodies.

A provocative strategy based on physical confrontations, involving pushing and screaming matches, narrows clinic defense effort to the small number who mistakenly believe that being assaulted by OR fanatics and being jailed proves their dedication and rallies support. On the contrary, such belligerent tactics are utilized by the police and the media who are happy to brand pro-choice supporters as violent and disruptive elements, and as just as irresponsible as “OR extremists on the right.” The energies and resources of the pro-choice movement must be directed toward helping safeguard women’s rights — not diverted into raising bail money, hiring lawyers, and going through court procedures because clinic defenders refuse to be properly trained or insist on trading blows with OR.

Most people see no point in taking a beating to make a point which can be presented much more effectively through a powerful demonstration. And massive opposition to OR’s goals and activities is what is needed.

Experiences With Clinic Defense

Organizing legal and peaceful actions does not result in weak, dreary, defenseless actions — as many experiences have shown. Pro-choice fighters have shown their determination to safeguard clinics in spite of threats and actual physical attacks. Personal courage is not the issue. The question is: what tactics will actually protect clinic clients, force Operation Rescue to stop, and promote the pro-choice struggle? In an April 14,1989, letter to abortion rights supporters, the president of the Los Angeles NOW chapter noted:

Those of you that ended up on the front lines with OR faced increasing violence over the three-day siege. You were hit, shoved, pushed to the ground, grabbed in the crotch, and violently pressed up against the walls and glass-paned doors. And you stayed on.

Many of you were on the sidelines or at clinics that were not hit by OR. You stood by with pro-choice signs for several hours. By doing so, you played an important role in mobilizing the city in support of a woman’s “choice.”

It was a wonderful, uplifting experience of empowerment: We showed them that we won’t go back!

Successful tactics to stop OR have been shared to help groups across the country engaged in clinic defense campaigns. Pro-choice activists have learned from each other — and have been inspired by each other — about: the training of effective escorts, how to out-maneuver OR, the best placement of defenders at clinic sites, which chants and songs help demoralize OR and clarify the pro-choice message, how to get the media to present our pro-choice position rather than OR’s, what to do to pressure public officials and prestigious persons/organizations to oppose OR, and so on.

Abortion rights fighters have built up a reservoir of tactics, techniques, and real-life experience — a rich accumulation which can be utilized to build bigger and better defense efforts in the face of the current assault against women’s right to choose.

When Operation Rescue first began to function, abortion rights supporters successfully frustrated their efforts in most cases. Pro-choice forces outnumbered and out-organized OR in city after city. On October 29,1988, 3,000 pro-choice activists lined Beacon Street, from Boston to Brookline, demonstrating against an announced OR attempt to close a clinic. OR abandoned its planned action in the face of this large turnout. Los Angeles pro-choice activists repeatedly thwarted OR’s efforts during 1989 by training hundreds of escorts to help women clients enter clinics, by mobilizing women’s rights defenders at clinics and by organizing public statements by religious and government groups denouncing OR. The Boston-area and Los Angeles achievements served as inspiring and educational examples for clinic defenders around the country during 1989-90.

At one point, it appeared that OR was sliding into a decline due to the vigorous clinic defense activities of pro-choice forces and the problems caused by court fines and jail sentences. In May 1990, federal courts imposed a permanent ban on blockades of clinics and harassments of clients and staff in New York and Atlanta. Over 1,000 OR blockaders received jail sentences in Los Angeles. Enraged over prosecutors’ refusal to reduce the sentences and over court penalties in other Southern California cities, OR activists and the Christian Defense Coalition targeted California judges for picketing, protest letters and telephone calls, and rallies. In November 1990, Washington, D.C., police arrested Randall Terry along with several hundred other OR demonstrators involved in a two-day campaign against clinics and a Planned Parenthood office. Federal judges in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia issued permanent injunctions against Operation Rescue, Terry, and several other OR leaders, prohibiting them from blocking clinic entrances. At the end of January 1991, OR head Randall Terry announced that debts forced the closing of his national headquarters in Binghamton, New York. Terry explained that he was unable to pay his staff largely because of a $50,000 fine imposed by a New York court in a lawsuit won by the National Organization for Women. Just released from a Georgia jail where he spent almost four months on charges of criminal trespass and unlawful assembly, Terry told a conference of religious broadcasters that OR’s 125 local affiliates would continue their attempts to close clinics. In April, Terry pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges stemming from a 1989 illegal blockade of a women’s health clinic in Los Angeles. The judge fined him $700 and ordered him to abide by a federal court order banning such blockades. Within a week, Terry said he was stepping down from day-to-day leadership of Operation Rescue, but he continued to play a key leadership role. OR members pursued their clinic blockades, and hundreds were arrested in various cities.

Operation Rescue’s 1991 Actions

Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together and given new life, OR rampaged with increased fervor during 1991. Anti-choice activists were heartened by the Supreme Court’s February announcement that it would hear an appeal by OR attorneys claiming that First Amendment rights allowed the group to block and disrupt clinics. OR received another energizing restorative when the Justice Department filed a brief on their behalf in the midst of OR’s Kansas campaign.

OR activists poured into Wichita for a “Summer of Mercy” which began on July 15. After two weeks of clinic blockades, during which over 1,000 OR demonstrators were arrested, a federal judge brought in U.S. marshalls to enforce his order against blocking clinic entrances. Defying the court, OR was joined by scores of clergy members (mostly from Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches) in a siege of two clinics. When the judge threatened heavy fines and jail sentences, OR activists began to subside — but then the Justice Department stepped in and said the judge had no jurisdiction to order such penalties or to tell federal marshalls how to enforce his orders. Terry immediately announced a renewed attack on the clinics.

Further encouraged by support from Wichita Mayor Knight and Kansas Governor Joan Finney, OR escalated its tactics by throwing themselves in front of cars, attacking a third clinic, and organizing young children to block access to a clinic by lying down in front of automobiles attempting to enter. Five days before their announced departure date, OR stormed a clinic, knocking down a patient, pushing over protective sawhorses, scaling a fence, and blocking the driveway. OR’s six weeks’ campaign was capped on August 25 with a rally sponsored by 25 local anti-choice groups.

Vowing to turn Cincinnati into “another Wichita,” OR carried out a clinic siege on October 18 and 19. Well-organized abortion rights forces greatly outnumbered participants in anti-choice events and actions throughout the month. Over 1,000 pro-choice supporters picketed the October 5 Ohio Right to Life Convention. Local activists were joined by abortion rights advocates from around the state. The unexpectedly large turnout could not fit into the reserved post-demonstration meeting room, so a spirited parking lot rally was held. Hundreds signed up on sheets for clinic defense and other pro-choice activities. In preparation for OR’s threatened attack, clinic directors were contacted, escort training was given, and abortion rights supporters were mobilized from the community and campuses. Over 2,000 demonstrated across the street from OR’s October 17 revival meeting. Hundreds showed up to defend clinics and express pro-choice demands during OR’s efforts to close down clinics on October 18-19. The viciousness of OR’s physical attacks surprised many — including students who were participating in clinic defense for the first time. However, OR’s goal of creating “another Wichita” was foiled by the massive, broadly representative, and disciplined abortion rights forces.

On October 20, pro-choice forces held a well-attended press conference and rally at the city hall, and reported their highly successful rout of OR.

Clinic Defense and the Federal Government

Operation Rescue continues to pose a serious threat to abortion accessibility. All women seeking medical services — even those not related in any way to abortion — are being deprived of treatment because of OR’s blockades. Clinic defense efforts must — and will — continue. At the same time, the role of legislators, courts, and federal agencies must be taken into account by abortion rights defenders. The current majority on the U.S. Supreme Court cannot be counted upon to uphold the principles of Roe v. Wade nor the legal rights of OR victims. The U.S. Justice Department has already shown its intentions when it filed a brief opposing the use of federal marshals to defend Wichita clinics. This stands in stark contrast to the use of federal troops to protect Black students in the South during the height of the civil rights struggle.

Justice Department lawyer John Roberts, Jr., argued before the Supreme Court in October that Operation Rescue’s clinic blockades do not come under federal jurisdiction. The Justice Department attorney said that in order to fall under federal laws, ’The conspirators [OR] must seek to deny to some what they would permit for others.” Pointing out that Operation Rescue wants to bar abortion access to all women, the lawyer claimed that this did not constitute discrimination to women as a “class of persons” protected under an 1871 federal law. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court and a federal judge in Virginia had applied the post-Civil War law to women seeking abortions. Lower courts had ruled that clinic blockades interfered with interstate travel rights of women who are not Virginia residents and, therefore, barred OR from blockading nine abortion clinics in the state. The Justice Department is attempting to overturn such judicial decisions. The Supreme Court has not made a determination in this case — but the current composition of the bench and the strong anti-choice position of the Bush Administration is a clear and present danger to women’s reproductive rights.

This situation underlines the need for independent political action — in the streets and in the electoral arena. Public officials — in government bodies and in the court system — must feel the weight and power of the pro-choice majority, and must be replaced if necessary.

Never Again!

Women and their allies know that it will not be a quick or easy fight to stop Operation Rescue, to maintain legal and safe abortions, and to abolish all restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. But we have many resources to carry out this struggle. Many thousands are involved in clinic defense and abortion rights activities — and the numbers keep growing. Membership in national organizations has swollen since the Supreme Court’s 1989 Webster decision, and since Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. For example, NOW’s membership has reportedly doubled since the hearings involving Professor Anita Hill’s testimony about sexual harassment by Thomas. A variety of local coalitions and groups are functioning around the country — providing a solid base for activities. Pro-choice forces recognize there is no “safe” state and are prepared to combat any effort to weaken already-established rights. A new generation of young women and men as well as previously inactive allies have joined with veteran feminists to safeguard reproductive rights. Calls for national mobilizations have resulted in record-breaking massive demonstrations for abortion rights. Women have a wealth of abilities, skills, and experiences to draw on for this fight. We displayed great creativity in the 1960s - early ’70s battles to repeal anti-abortion laws, and we learned to rely on our own strengths and to determine our own demands and forms of action. Women are now beginning to expand their goals to include a new independent political party.

We will continue to assert, “Never again!” No return to back-alley abortions! No more needless deaths and internal butchering! We will control our own bodies!

We will march and rally and take political action to make sure we win safe, legal, accessible, affordable abortions regardless of residence, age, and financial condition!

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