Apr 19, 2004
On Sunday, April 25, six pro-choice organizations have organized a "March for Women's Lives, a demonstration for abortion rights in Washington D.C. We all have every reason to participate, since it is exactly such activities that helped win women the right to choose 31 years ago.
Once again, the reactionaries are drawing a bead on women's access to abortion.
No one should pretend that abortion is a choice without bitter consequences. But in the current situation women face, it is a choice that must be available.
Prior to January 22, l973, when the Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade decision, abortions were illegal in two-thirds of the states, and even in those states where they were legal, they were hemmed in by many restrictions.
Of course, even when abortion was illegal, women with money had access to abortions performed under medically competent circumstances. But for poor women, the home remedies and "back-alley" abortion methods meant danger and even death.
Support for legalizing abortion had been strong before Roe v. Wade – and ever since. A poll in l975 showed that three out of four Americans supported it then. And a recent poll showed an even larger majority – four out of five support women's right to choose an abortion under most circumstances.
Nonetheless, the attacks on abortion rights began almost immediately after Roe v. Wade and have continued ever since. The Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976 by a Congress that had almost a two-thirds Democratic majority in both houses. It was probably the worst attack because it prohibited using federal funds in Medicaid programs for abortion – in other words, effectively, it denied poor working women, as well as women on welfare, the right to choose an abortion.
Other attacks included the requirement that the parents of women under 18 years of age be notified before an abortion can be performed; restrictions on what doctors are allowed to tell patients about abortion and contraception; increased waiting periods between the request and the performance of the abortion; prevention of the use of the morning-after pill, mifepristone, up until l995; and even, in some states, the requirement that a woman go to court to request an abortion.
But the attacks have been not only legal ones. In large parts of the majority of states, there is not a single doctor left performing abortions. This problem is the result of a campaign of terror carried out by so-called pro-lifers who have picketed at centers which perform abortions, attacked verbally those entering the centers, and even called on supporters to "eliminate" doctors who perform abortions. Doctors and other medical staff have been murdered.
It is the reactionary nature of the past time period that allowed all those attacks – legal and extra-legal – to continue. As the social movements of the l960s and l970s began to quiet down, a number of politicians encouraged the growth of a Christian fundamentalist movement, using it as a base of political support. George W. Bush has specialized in this.
Of course such politicians are not limited to the United States. They are simply the U.S. version of the fundamentalism widespread in other countries; they differ little in attitude from Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East or from Hindu fundamentalists in India or Jewish fundamentalists in Israel in their attitudes toward women and the right to abortion.
If women are to defend themselves and maintain the right to choose abortion (including for poor women who effectively are denied it today), it will be by the same means women gained this right over three decades ago. The right to legal abortion was not given by the Supreme Court 30 years ago – it was granted because women had demanded and fought for it. The decision was partially a result of the women's movement, and it was part of the larger fight for more democratic rights that had dominated political life in this country for more than two decades.
The battle to get rid of Jim Crow by the black population, the numerous protests against the war in Viet Nam, along with the women's movement all created a climate in which a number of rights were expanded, including the laws for better health care which resulted in Medicare and Medicaid. New laws were passed against discrimination in the workplace, in transportation and in housing.
It was in this context that women fought for and won the right to abortion. It is such a situation we have to begin creating again by our struggles.