Aug 31, 1992
In the United States, abortion rights won 20 years ago continue to be eroded and under attack. We could even arrive at the point that these last two decades simply represent an interruption in the usual barbaric way of doing things, with most women once again denied access to legal abortions, and forced to use quacks or to try to abort themselves.
This summer, another big step was taken backward when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. On the one hand, the court struck down one of the law’s “controls,” the requirement that a wife get written permission from her husband to have an abortion. The court ruled that this put an “undue burden” on a woman.
But the court upheld the rest of the Pennsylvania law which, while not prohibiting abortions outright, multiplies the obstacles a woman must face if she tries to have one. Among these obstacles is the requirement that a minor (anyone under 18) seeking an abortion must first have written permission from her parents; the alternative is to get permission from a court. But going to court, facing a judge and everyone else in the court (among whom there might be a neighbor) is designed to make her feel like a criminal. And it can be a matter of public record.
The law also requires a 24-hour waiting period after arranging for an abortion. The doctor is also required to give the woman state-written propaganda about fetal development and alternatives to abortion.
A waiting period might sound like a small restriction. But in some areas of the country, it’s already necessary to travel hundreds of miles to get to the one place which still performs abortions. This waiting period adds on the necessity of taking a motel or travelling twice. And being forced to look at pictures of aborted fetuses only makes worse an already difficult and painful decision for any woman.
By upholding the 24-hour waiting period, for the first time the courts have allowed the states to actually place restrictions on abortions without any legal justification other than regulating abortion itself. Past restrictions have always been justified in some secondary way, usually as financial measures. In some states, for example, abortions are now prohibited in state-funded hospitals.
Now, as many as 26 state governments are poised to follow in the footsteps of Pennsylvania. There are other states, like Louisiana, Utah, and the territory of Guam, which have already passed laws prohibiting all abortions, except those directly required to save the woman’s life or in the case of rape. These states are ready to implement those laws if they get the green light from the Supreme Court.
That would mean that the Supreme Court would have to overturn Roe versus Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a woman’s basic right to have an abortion. The Supreme Court came close to overturning Roe this summer. With the ruling on the Pennsylvania law, the Supreme Court formally upheld Roe but by only one vote.
The right to an abortion had been won along with a package of social gains by the movements of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, black power movement, anti-war movement and women’s movement expanded civil rights and existing social programs. They also forced the government to create new programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare. And they ended the death penalty, for a few years anyway.
In the years leading up to Roe vs. Wade, with social movements growing, abortion became an issue taken up even by the middle class. Doctors forced the extremely conservative American Medical Association to drop its position opposing abortion rights. Several states passed laws that permitted abortions. These laws were passed by both Democratic and Republican politicians alike. In the late 1960s, the broadest abortion rights bill was won in California. A Democratic legislature passed it, and a right-wing Republican governor named Ronald Reagan signed it.
As the social movements peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, pressure grew on the Supreme Court. According to the Roe vs. Wade decision, written by Harry Blackmun, a judge appointed by Richard Nixon, a woman had the right to an abortion based on her constitutional right to privacy.
Almost immediately after Roe vs. Wade, women’s right to abortion faced an opposition led by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which had always been strongly against abortion. At first, though, this opposition didn’t get very far.
But by the mid-1970s, as the large social movements were drying up, the right, which had been on the defensive for a long time, began to meet less resistance. The stage was more open to right-wing Christian Evangelical groups that played on the fears and prejudices of an increasingly vocal minority. Some of the evangelists, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, had enormous resources at their disposal, their own television shows, even their own television stations. They seized on the abortion issue.
The Republican and Democratic Parties almost immediately began to encourage and court right-wing and even extreme-right wing sentiment. The whole political establishment began to promote a range of reactionary ideas: doing away with basic rights for women; fostering racist attitudes against black people and immigrants; encouraging religious superstitions, intolerance, etc.
In 1977, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Hyde Amendment which cut off federal funding to pay for abortions at public health clinics or for any poor women using Medicaid. This bill was signed into law by Democrat Jimmy Carter. The gist of the campaign was to say that the taxpayer should not subsidize the sins of these women on welfare. Medicaid is jointly funded by the federal and state governments, but over the years most state governments followed suit and cut off their Medicaid funding for abortions.
In 1980, the same Ronald Reagan who had signed the liberal abortion law in California ran for president. Running with Reagan was George Bush, who had served in Congress in the late 1960s as a pro-choice representative. As late as 1979, Bush was on the board of Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization with corporate and government funding, which runs clinics across the country that dispense birth control and help arrange abortions.
Nonetheless, Reagan and Bush continued the path started under Carter and the Democrats. They gave White House support to anti-abortion forces: a greater hearing and more resources to the anti-abortion forces, as well as support for new regulations. The Reagan administration made a point of placing people opposed to abortion in key positions in the Justice Department and Health Services. It became a criteria for being appointed to the judiciary.
Reagan and later Bush used their powers at the head of the Executive Branch to make it more difficult for women to get an abortion. In 1987, Reagan decreed that federal funding would be cut off to any clinic in which doctors or nurses even discussed abortion, or gave information to pregnant women about where they could have an abortion. This was later upheld by the Supreme Court, which said that since the government paid the bills, it had the right to restrict what its employees could say.
Under the Bush administration, the “abortion pill,” marketed in France and other countries, was banned, not on medical grounds, but on purely political ones. RU-286 makes it much easier to abort a fetus than other methods. In a test case this summer, a pregnant woman returned from France with the pills. The pills were taken from her by U.S. Customs. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the government by a vote of 7 to 2. Over the last few years, the Bush administration has taken steps to appeal to the anti-abortion movement at the expense of scientific research. Bush decreed that tissue taken from aborted fetuses could not be used in medical experiments, despite its promise in aiding the treatment of or even cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases. Thus Bush has brought such research to an almost complete halt in the United States.
More recently, Democrats as well as Republicans have been behind the attacks on abortion rights. The Pennsylvania Abortion Act was sponsored and signed by a “moderate” Democratic governor, and it was passed by a majority Democrat legislature. The governor of Kansas who signed a similar law is also a Democrat. The main lawyer who has worked on over a dozen cases to overturn Roe vs. Wade is a liberal Democrat. Various mayors, who have welcomed anti-abortion campaigns to their cities, such as the mayor of Buffalo, are also Democrats.
With the help of a big part of the political establishment, the more militant sections of the anti-abortion movement were encouraged to expand their activities. Starting in the 1980s, this movement has relied on intimidation: harassing doctors and hospitals that performed abortions; bombing and vandalizing clinics and doctors’ offices that performed abortions. Needless to say, these actions are not investigated or prosecuted very vigorously by the federal authorities. When people are occasionally convicted, they are invariably given light sentences. So much for Reagan’s and Bush’s crackdown on “terrorism.”
The anti-abortion forces also harass not only doctors, but their families. Their homes have been vandalized. In school, their children are called the children of baby killers. The result is that many doctors, hospitals, and clinics simply have given up performing abortions. Abortion, as a procedure, is no longer taught at many medical schools. In many states, only one doctor or one clinic in the whole state performs abortions today. In order to continue, these doctors and clinics have to be on constant guard, ready to defend themselves.
The anti-abortion forces also try to intimidate the pregnant women themselves. They set up phony clinics for women seeking abortions. They list themselves in the phone book as an abortion service. When women arrive, they are cornered, shown films and pictures of dead fetuses, told that they will go to hell forever if they have the abortion, etc.
The demonstrations at health clinics are designed not just to stop the functioning of the clinics, but to stop women from coming in. The anti-abortion groups claim to pattern themselves after the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the last few years, such groups as Operation Rescue and the Lambs of God have targeted medium-sized cities, such as Wichita, Kansas; Fargo, North Dakota; and Buffalo, New York. They have brought hundreds and sometimes thousands of people from all over the country to lay siege to the clinics, often for months at a time. With these demonstrations, they not only prevent some women from choosing abortion, they also dominate the news and life of the city, and attract some support from the communities.
At no time has the anti-abortion movement reflected the sentiments of most of the population. According to all polls, over 60 percent of the population has been consistently against outlawing abortion.
Several groups have led the fight for abortion rights: the National Organization of Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). They have been able to get more people to participate in major demonstrations than the anti-abortion movement has done. Their demonstration last spring in Washington, D.C. brought an estimated 750,000 people from all over the country. It was one of the largest demonstrations ever held in Washington.
The pro-choice groups have organized people to defend clinics attacked by anti-abortion activists. In cities where anti-abortion activists have demonstrated, the pro-choice forces have sometimes organized counter-demonstrations. So far, the results have been mixed. In Wichita, the anti-abortion forces succeeded in continuing their demonstrations for months. In Buffalo, the reaction against Operation Rescue was much stronger, and Operation Rescue was forced out rather quickly.
The pro-choice groups today are putting a great deal of emphasis on getting Democrats, especially women candidates, elected to public office. But the way that abortion rights were won in the 1960s and partly lost in the 70s and 80s showed that what counts is not which politicians are in office, but how big the movement is. When the movement was strong enough, both Democrats and Republicans, both of whom had formerly opposed abortion rights, suddenly changed positions.
What happens today depends on how strong a fight people make. Laws which erode the right to an abortion have been enacted against the opinion of a majority of the people. If the pro-choice movement is ready to rely on and mobilize just a fraction of those who already agree with them, they would certainly have more than enough forces to repel the attacks from the political establishment and the anti-abortion movement.
Reprinted from Class Struggle #29