Abortion Rights: Still Seeking a Decisive Victory


January 22, 1998 marked the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. But even with this historic victory for women’s rights in 1973, the struggle to defend women’s reproductive rights continues today. The right to safe, legal, and especially accessible abortions remains under attack.

According to opinion polls, the majority opinion in this country remains pro-choice — at least in a general sense. However, new polls show a majority of Americans also support limiting abortion in specific circumstances and populations. For example, a recent New York Times poll showed that 62 percent of Americans support the right to an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, but only 25 percent support second-trimester abortion. Remarkably, half of those polled felt an abortion was too easy to obtain.

Such mixed support for abortion rights reveals part of why the federal government and many state governments have been willing — and able — to limit abortion rights while remaining reluctant to reverse Roe v. Wade altogether. The restrictions have been largely targeted at women least able to defend themselves and who enjoy less public support, such as teenagers and women who receive public assistance.

The mixed support also reflects the continuing stigma attached to abortion. Pro-choice forces have yet to win public opinion decisively. And as the media and political parties have moved further to the right, the opportunities to present the pro-choice view in a positive light before the public have lessened.

Forward and backward steps

Over the 25 years we have enjoyed the legal right to abortion, many other aspects of reproductive choice have improved. In fact, reproductive choices that were not available 25 years ago to anyone are now available for many women.

There have been tremendous technological advances in pregnancy tests, and with earlier discovery of pregnancy abortions are increasingly performed earlier in the pregnancy — which is safer, less stressful, and more publicly acceptable. Tests that allow for earlier detection of severe birth defects have offered more choice to parents who face the potential tragedy birth to a fetus that will die soon after or that will have no chance at reasonable quality of life.

Fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization, though controversial, have also offered the infertile the possibility of having children. More children born premature or in multiple births are surviving. Fetal surgery is improving the chances for life of fetuses that might otherwise be aborted for life-destroying birth defects.

Further, the quality and sensitivity of abortion providers have improved. The abortion procedures themselves have become safer, and today very few deaths or complications result from legal abortions.

There are an estimated 1 million legal abortions each year in the United States. This is a decline from earlier in Roe v. Wade’s history, no doubt in part to positive reasons, such as better contraception and sexual education. But there is another reason: access has been made far more difficult.

Today, access to safe, legal abortion has declined dramatically. According to one recent study, the number of hospitals or clinics in rural areas of the United States that perform abortions had dropped 77 percent since 1977. There are no providers of legal abortion in 84 percent of U.S. counties; these counties are home to 30 percent of all American women of reproductive age. Also, the number of doctors willing to perform abortions has declined dramatically, and fewer ob-gyn programs in medical schools teach even first trimester abortion techniques.

Much of this decline has been due to extremist attacks on abortion clinics and providers. Women seeking services in facilities that provide abortion are subject to humiliating and dangerous harassment, as are the doctors. Clinics are frequently firebombed and vandalized. Several doctors and clinic workers have been murdered.

Nationally, the “Hyde Amendment” denied federal funding for abortion to low-income women whose other medical expenses were subsidized, driving many into the “back alley” or going full-term with unwanted pregnancies. Women in the military are denied coverage for abortions; those who can pay can’t receive abortions in military hospitals.

Although even the current conservative Supreme Court continues to rule in favor of the basic premise of Roe v. Wade, numerous restrictions have been legalized. In 1992, the Court ruled that states could pass restrictions on abortion — which many states did. Some current restrictions include mandated counseling, where often inflammatory and inaccurate anti-abortion information is provided; waiting periods, which effectively eliminates access for women from outside a given area; and parental consent requirements for teenagers, which prolong the pre-abortion period, often forcing teenage women to encounter severe abuse or driving them into potentially fatal illegal or self-induced abortions.

Roe v. Wade protects abortion up to the point of “fetal viability”. After this point, abortion may be restricted to cases involving saving the life and health of the pregnant woman, or in extreme cases of fetal abnormality. Recently, efforts were made to outlaw a rare late-term abortion technique called “dilation and evacuation,” used only in these tragic medical emergencies. While Pres. Clinton vetoed the bills, the fact they passed both houses of Congress shows the shakiness of abortion rights.

The pro-choice struggle

Again, reproductive rights involves more than the right to abortion. It also involves the rights to contraception; culturally and age appropriate sexual education; fertility treatment, prenatal and infant care; and childbirth education. The absence of childcare and access to affordable and adequate healthcare, including appropriate maternity care, exacerbates today’s problems. The pro-choice struggle is also about the defense of rights for all women, regardless of national origin, age, race, immigrant status, disability, religion, and so on. It means fighting to ensure accessibility in all its forms: regional location, safety, cost, physical access. To be successful, the pro-choice movement must be sensitive to class and other differences among women.

To succeed, the pro-choice movement needs to build coalitions around welfare rights, education, childcare, and other such movements that are intimately related to women’s right to choose to bear children as well as to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

Pro-choice activists have not emphasized enough that the issue really is choice, not just abortion. Consistent defense of the full range of choices needed by women would surely create a broader, stronger movement. And that movement must be willing to respond with sensitivity to the ethical issues that are raised in this debate. They key message is that what is at stake, again, is a woman’s choice, that women have the moral and intellectual capacity to determine for ourselves whether we want to continue a pregnancy.

One of the biggest mistakes made by most in the pro-choice movement has been the reliance on the Democratic Party and conventional politicking to defend our rights. This has proven to be a fruitless strategy.

Support for Democrats may appear, on the surface, to make some sense. After all, Democratic Party politicians as a group do have a better voting record on abortion rights than Republicans, who have made opposition to abortion a large part of the party’s platform. This has led to a mistaken view of abortion as a partisan issue: Democrats pro-choice, Republicans anti-choice.

There are serious dangers in this approach. First, these politicians are not single-issue politicians. They have larger programs — ones based on the class interests of the capitalists from whom they get their campaign financing. And remember, it is the Democrats that have led the dismantling of federal welfare programs, and a Democratic administration in Washington that refused to demand universal access to healthcare. These two policies have had a greater negative effect on reproductive choice than many direct restrictions.

The movement’s focus on elections also diverts resources from organizing women — an effort that has proven to subject decisive pressure on the politicians. It is no coincidence that there was a mass movement demanding the right to a safe, legal abortion at the time the Supreme Court ruled as it did in Roe v. Wade. And it is no coincidence today that a more conservative Supreme Court again recently voted to uphold the basic language of that earlier decision: they are sensitive to public opinion.

What do we need today?

We need a pro-choice movement today that takes bold steps to build coalitions with all the movements in defense of the broad spectrum of rights. And those of us in other movements need to reach out to the pro-choice movement as well.

The labor movement is a good example. Changes that have taken place in recent years in the leadership of the AFL-CIO offer the opportunity to try and break the federation’s executive board away from its official “neutral” position on abortion. Official support from the AFL-CIO leadership would make it easier to gain acceptance of abortion rights within other unions. And it would open the door for organizations like the Labor Party to fight openly for its pro-choice position.

These are the kinds of actions needed today. The pro-choice movement has a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility, to broaden the struggle for reproductive rights. This is the way to ensure that the promise of Roe v. Wade is realized, not scaled back.


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