If nothing else, the Democratic Party was at least pro-choice—or so we were told. Ever since Ronald Reagan heralded the rise of social troglodytes in the early eighties, liberal leaders have scolded into line those disgusted with the Democrats’ support for foreign wars, “welfare reform,” and anti-gay legislation by insisting that the Democratic Party was all that stood between women seeking abortion and the Republican barbarians howling at the gates. For twenty-five years, the Democratic mantra on the eve of every election was, “Don’t forget the Supreme Court!” to those considering bolting from the Democrats to support a third-party candidate or just plain bolting. The argument was clear that not voting for Democrats was tantamount to handing over the High Court to the right wing. It almost went without saying that unless the Democrats got elected to Congress, the state house, the school board, or whatever, women’s right to choose would be eroded and then eliminated.
The jig is up. In January, it was Kerry and Hillary and the gang phoning in a thirty-minute filibuster before the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Court, posturing against the anti-choice nominee just long enough to provide ad footage for their reelection campaigns. Then, Democrats in South Dakota helped both to sponsor and pass the law banning abortion in South Dakota. “So much for the notion that Democrats are pro-choice and Republicans are pro-life,” Democratic state representative Gil Koetzle smirked to the Associated Press. State senator Paul Symens, another Democrat, actually complained that his party wasn’t getting enough media coverage for its support of the ban. Now, all nine Democratic women in the Senate have signed a letter of support for Pennsylvania anti-choice senatorial candidate Bob Casey Jr.
South Dakota’s law is a sweeping anti-abortion measure, banning virtually all abortions, and includes language that could effectively outlaw some forms of contraception. The law—which goes into effect July 1—states that “life begins at the time of conception.” Doctors who act in defiance of the law face a minimum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, unless an abortion is necessary to save the woman’s life.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Democratic state senator Julie Bartling, said the time is right for a total ban on abortion. “In my opinion, it is the time for this South Dakota legislature to deal with this issue and protect the rights and lives of unborn children,” she told reporters. Senators voted down a proposed amendment that would have made an exception to protect the pregnant woman’s health. A proposed exception in cases of rape—raised by a Republican—lost in a twenty-one to fourteen vote. In the state Senate, the ban initially passed by a margin of eighteen to fifteen, the minimum number of “yes” votes needed. That means that a “no” vote from even one Democratic state senator could have killed the measure. Out of the eighteen who voted for the bill in the Senate, five of the “yes” votes came from Democrats.
South Dakota is one of three states—along with Mississippi and North Dakota—that has just one abortion clinic. The doctors, who are rotated and flown into South Dakota from Minnesota, perform abortions only one day a week. According to Planned Parenthood, which runs the clinic in Sioux Falls, 76 percent of the patients are uninsured. Yet despite the state’s conservative climate, a 2004 Sioux Falls Argus Leader poll showed that 72 percent of those polled think some form of abortion should be legal.
The Democrats’ longstanding acceptance of legislation for parental consent, waiting periods, and “counseling” for women seeking abortions led to the alarming decrease in the accessibility of abortion under Bill Clinton, who ended his eight years in office with only 14 percent of American counties still offering abortion services. Those were supposedly the “good old” days.
By January 2005, the Democrats had mapped out a strategy of near-total abandonment of women’s right to choose, announced by none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton on the thirty-second anniversary of Roe v. Wade. “We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic, choice to many, many women,” she claimed to a shocked crowd of abortion supporters. Clinton celebrated faith and organized religion as the “primary” reasons why teenagers would abstain from sexual relations—and insisted that there “is an opportunity for people of good faith to find common ground in this debate.”
Ever since then, the Democrats seem determined to prove that they are moving away from support for abortion rights. One of the Democrats’ first acts following the 2004 elections, for example, was to choose staunchly anti-choice (and anti-gay) Senator Harry Reid’s to replace Tom Daschle as the party’s minority leader in the Senate. Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean was quick to follow when he explained, “I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats.” Democrats for Life of America is stumping for a plan they call “95–10,” which they claim would reduce abortions by 95 percent in ten years.
They have pulled the nation’s leading pro-choice organizations to the right along with them. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, responded to the South Dakota ban stating, ”We should work to reduce the need for abortion, not continue to battle about Roe v. Wade.” After weighing a possible Senate primary bid against anti-choice Democratic candidate Bob Casey, former NARAL head Kate Michelman wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Despite profound and fundamental differences, I have decided that Pennsylvania will be better served by electing Bob Casey to the U.S. Senate than giving his opponent another term. I do this knowing that I may forever regret not responding one more time to the clarion call of principle.” So now we know at least some of the folks leading the retreat have a bad conscience.
It appears that only the president of the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Cecilia Fire Thunder, was outraged enough to take action and declare that abortions will be legal and available on the reservation, sovereign territory. It is a bizarre historical twist that land now home to a people nearly annihilated and left impoverished by the U.S. government will become the last sanctuary for women seeking a basic health care procedure in that state.
If ever there were a time for calls to mass action to defend and extend abortion rights, it is now. The right wing has shifted its approach from chipping away at abortion access to going for the jugular—full repeal of abortion rights. The new Supreme Court, packed with hard-line reactionaries, has agreed to hear the Bush administration’s appeal of a decision invalidating the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003,” a law that would ban terminating pregnancies as early as twelve or thirteen weeks, and that doesn’t include exceptions for the woman’s health. Yet the legislative focus of groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Organization for Women has them setting their sights on elections 2006 and 2008. In the face of the utter failure of this electoral strategy for decades, and now open collaboration on abortion repeal by Democrats, it is a deadly gamble with women’s lives.
Historian and activist Howard Zinn was right on target when he argued recently in the Progressive: “It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice…. The right of a woman to an abortion did not depend on the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. It was won before that decision, all over the country, by grassroots agitation that forced states to recognize the right. If the American people, who by a great majority favor that right, insist on it, act on it, no Supreme Court decision can take it away.”
There is no doubt that hundreds of thousands (millions?) would answer the call if women’s organizations were to try to organize a national mobilization in defense of a woman’s right to choose. When the generals leading the retreat finally decamp to the other side, even though the soldiers would fight if a call were made, it’s definitely time to look for new generals.
SHERRY WOLF is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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