MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 4

International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Katherine Dwyer


Legal but inaccessible

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Abortion Wars: A Half Century of Struggle, 1950–2000
Rickie Solinger, editor
University of California Press, 1998, 413 pages $16.95

OPINION POLLS continue to show that a majority of people in the U.S. favor legalized abortion. But the January bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic which killed one man and critically wounded a clinic worker serves as a grim reminder that the battle for abortion rights inside the U.S. rages on.

A new collection of essays, Abortion Wars, documents how the extreme violence of abortion opponents, neglect at the hands of the medical establishment and backpedaling of mainstream politicians have made abortion increasingly unavailable for many women – especially those who are young and poor, arguably those with the greatest need for the right to choose.

For many women, just finding a place to get an abortion is a tremendous burden, since 84 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion providers. Those seeking abortions face a barrage of regulations, including mandatory waiting periods, “gag” rules barring doctors from mentioning abortion and parental notification laws which severely limit women’s ability to control their own reproductive decisions. Perhaps most damaging, many working-class and poor women can no longer afford to have abortions if they choose to. An estimated 20 percent of all women seeking abortions who are eligible for Medicaid are not able to get them, due to lack of government funding.

Marlene Gerber Fried’s essay, Abortion in the United States – Legal but Inaccessible, puts the recent setbacks in the context of a broader attack on working and poor people. Fried argues that abortion in the U.S. is a class issue and shows the price working-class and poor women pay for restrictions on abortion. She spells out the effects of the 1976 Hyde Amendment which banned federal Medicaid funding for all abortions except when the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Until then, around one-third of all abortions were paid for by federal funding. In 1977, federal funds paid for 294,600 abortions. By 1992, only 267 abortions were funded by Medicaid.

Federal funding is so strict that one woman suffering from cervical cancer was told that she could get a Medicaid-funded hysterectomy but could not receive funding for the abortion she needed in order to actually treat the cancer. Another woman who came to the hospital with a severe infection caused by trying to give herself an abortion with a coat hanger was told that Medicaid would pay to treat the infection but not for an abortion, since her life was not in danger.

What’s at stake

These horror stories give a sense of what is at stake when abortion funding is curtailed. Fried rightly argues that the defensive strategy taken up by most of the mainstream women’s organizations is the reason why the right wing has been able to successfully erode the right to abortion. She points out that “since many supporters define abortion today as a necessary evil and fail entirely to connect abortion to a broader conception of women’s rights, it is no wonder opponents are having a public relations field day.” Fried calls on activists to reject the standard view held by Clinton and other Democratic Party politicians that abortions should be legal but rare. Abortion should be defended without apology. Like many of the authors in the book, Fried argues for building a multiracial, grassroots movement for abortion and women’s rights generally.

In today’s climate in which so many liberal organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) seem to bend over backwards to apologize for women exercising their legal right to choose, this book is a breath of fresh air. Most of the essays not only provide excellent historical and factual information, but also stress the need to rebuild an activist movement like the one that won legal abortion in 1973.

Not surprisingly, the worst essay in the book was written by the legal director of NARAL, Marcy J. Wilder. Wilder’s essay, which epitomizes the whole approach taken by mainstream feminist organizations over the last decade, argues that abortion is a moral issue and that the job of the pro-choice movement is to “make abortion less necessary.” Wilder complains about the “extraordinarily high rates of abortion” and argues that the pro-choice movement should fight for “a forward looking vision of a better society where unintended pregnancy is minimized and child rearing is supported as enthusiastically as abortion is discouraged.” In response to right-wing attacks on abortion, Wilder argues that abortion is the lesser of two evils. She claims that right-wingers “never consider that abortion may be bad, but that sometimes it is better than the alternatives.”

Wilder is one of a growing breed of feminists who are in favor of the legal right to choose, but against women actually having abortions. Echoing Bill and Hillary Clinton, Wilder claims that the problem with the abortion rights struggle is that it alienates right wingers and others who are against abortion. Instead, Wilder argues, we should find “common ground” with abortion opponents by appealing to conservative “family values” rhetoric and reducing the number of abortions performed. With “friends” like Wilder heading up some of the largest and best-funded women’s organizations in the country, it is no wonder that getting an abortion today is harder and often more traumatic than it was 10 years ago.

Qualified support for abortion

A few other writers also qualify their support for abortion. For example, in the midst of a somewhat abstract defense of abortion, Alison Jaggar feels the need to point out that her “personal view is that not all abortions are morally justified even in the first trimester.” She also thinks the state should try to “influence” the decisions that women make. This is a far cry from the demand of the 1970’s women’s movement that women should have the right to control their own bodies and reproductive lives.

The fact that this is what passes for a pro-choice position these days shows how much ground has been lost since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. As William Saletan’s essay, Electoral Politics and Abortion: Narrowing the Message, points out, the mainstream of the pro-choice movement over the last several years has adopted a strategy of compromising with the right in an attempt to stave off total defeat. The problem is that you do not win the war by losing all the battles. This strategy has not only emboldened right-wing terrorists like the ones behind the Alabama clinic bombing, but has also given a green light to bipartisan-loving Bill Clinton and the rest of the Democrats to stand by while abortion rights are whittled away.

While NARAL and NOW have cocktail parties celebrating the fact that they finally have a “pro-choice” Democrat in the White House, Clinton presides over a government that has cut abortion coverage from federal employees’ health insurance, outlawed abortion in military hospitals, banned funding for prisoners seeking abortions and allowed states to deny Medicaid to poor women seeking abortions who are the victims of rape and incest.

This book paints a startling picture of the desperate need to rebuild an activist movement today that can not only defend the legal right to abortion, but insure that all women, regardless of race or class, can get access to the funding and services necessary to have an abortion if they choose.

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