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International Socialist Review, Summer 1997

Notes of the Quarter

A step backward for abortion rights

From International Socialist Review, Issue 1, Summer 1997.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Whether willingly or with reluctance, most liberals (with the notable exception of The Nation’s Katha Pollitt) abandoned one principle after another to keep in step with Clinton when he galloped to the right in the months before last year’s presidential election. Most of Clinton’s liberal supporters claimed they wanted his reelection only to soften the blow of Republican cuts. But now, with Clinton safely in office for another term, most liberals have adopted wholesale Clinton’s conservative policies – most of which he stole from the Republicans – providing living proof of the bankruptcy of campaigning for Democrats as the lesser of two evils.

The abortion rights issue is a case in point. “People would like to see fewer abortions,” announced Kate Michelman, leader of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARRAL), as she unveiled NARRAL’s new campaign to help the Clinton administration reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies by 30 percent. The occasion was the League’s annual luncheon celebrating the twenty-fourth anniversary of the right to legal abortion. It was attended by First Lady Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al and Tipper Gore, who urged the pro-choice movement to reject “extremism” and start forging unity with abortion foes on points of agreement. Afterward, Michelman gushed that the appearance by “three members of the presidential team” was “an extraordinary demonstration of the commitment on the part of the administration to a woman’s right to choose.”

In reality, Clinton has undermined the basis for women’s right to choose – obvious to all but those with the shortest of memories. His 1992 campaign promise to pass a Freedom of Choice Act vanished as soon as he took office. A report issued by NARRAL last year showed that during Clinton’s first term, Congress had the worst anti-choice voting record in its history. Last year, even while vetoing Congress’ ban on the late-term abortion procedure known as intact D & E, he said he was willing to pass a ban which made an exception to protect a woman’s health. In response this spring, a group of Democrats led by Sen. Tom Daschle set out to prove once again that they could out-do the Republicans by proposing an even more restrictive bill banning all late-term abortions – but which allowed abortion in the case of “grievous” physical health problems, to make it palatable to Clinton. Meanwhile, many states, rather than wait for Congress to act, have gone ahead and passed their own bans on late-term abortions. Rather than a step forward for abortion rights, Clinton’s presidency has been a step backward.

Yet Michelman’s views have now been adopted – and even amplified – by others purporting to support abortion rights. “The pro-choice movement should give God a seat at the table,” urged feminist Naomi Wolf in an April 3 New York Times editorial in which she decried the nation’s “shamefully high abortion rate.” In it, Wolf echoed Hillary Clinton, calling on pro-choice supporters to join abortion opponents to lower the abortion rate – by campaigning for easier access to adoption as well as birth control, and, like Clinton, singling out teen pregnancy. And Wolf lambasted the pro-choice movement for framing its defense of abortion rights around “a woman’s right to choose,” which she claims is “neutral” and “abstract.”

But there is nothing abstract about the right to choose – certainly not for the three million women in the U.S. who face unplanned pregnancies each year. Every one of these women deserves the right to choose whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term. And there is nothing abstract about the consequences of losing the right to choose – whether it is the result of waiting periods, parental consent laws, or the imposition of state-wide bans on late-term abortions. Not only must women bear the physical and emotional trauma of unwanted pregnancy and childbirth, but, in this society, women ultimately bear the responsibility and the financial burden of raising children into adulthood. For these reasons, the choice whether to terminate a pregnancy must belong to the woman alone.

The right to choose was central to the women’s movement which won the right to legal abortion in 1973. Between 1969 and 1973, tens of thousands of women and men held hundreds of protests across the U.S. which made women’s right to choose a central demand – along with equal pay, childcare, and an end to discrimination – of the women’s liberation movement. Women cannot hope to be treated as the equals of men unless they have full control of their reproductive lives.

Those who, like Naomi Wolf and Kate Michelman, once defended women’s right to control their own bodies, are now calling on pro-choice activists to embrace those same anti-abortion zealots who seek to deprive women of this right. They are doing more than shifting gears in the struggle for abortion rights. They are abandoning it. They are no different than those liberals who once fought for welfare and now find themselves endorsing Clinton’s version of welfare “reform.” At a certain point, quantity becomes quality.

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