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Obama and Abortion Rights


As soon as the news surfaced that President Barack Obama had been invited to speak at the University of Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement ceremony, the fanatical wing of the nation’s anti-abortion crusade began assembling the smoke and mirrors needed to masquerade as a mass movement. Media savvy crackpot Randall Terry, who boasts a long record of confrontation with the enemies of the Christian Right, immediately took the lead. With great fanfare, he announced his plan to “make a circus” out of the pro-choice Obama’s speech — the kind of grandiose threat guaranteeing a prominent spot on the evening news.

Terry is perhaps best known for his role as a media representative for the parents of Terri Schiavo and a key proponent of “Terri’s Law” in Florida, a bill passed in 2003 that temporarily blocked the removal of their daughter’s feeding tube as she lay in a prolonged vegetative state. At the time, Terry organized angry protests outside husband Michael Schiavo’s home because he wished to have the feeding tube removed. The media lapped it up.

But Terry’s pet cause is opposing abortion. He founded Operation Rescue in 1987, which specialized in whipping anti-abortion fanatics into a collective frenzy as they blockaded abortion clinics across the country during the following decade. As Washington Post staff writer Michael Powell wrote in 2004, “Subtlety wasn’t Terry’s thing — he described Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, as a ‘whore’ and an ‘adulteress’ and arranged to have a dead fetus presented to Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.”

In the weeks before Obama’s May 17th speech, Terry et al worked hard to create the illusion that they represented a groundswell of outrage at Notre Dame’s betrayal. Money was apparently no object, since Terry spent $50,000 saturating the campus with photos of bloody “aborted fetuses” — which, as usual, looked suspiciously like newborn babies covered in ketchup. These doctored photos appeared and reappeared on placards, on the sides of semi-trailers that circled the university, and even on so-called “Truth Banners” streaming from low flying “Abortion Planes” above Notre Dame.

Anti-abortion activists pushed strollers with plastic baby dolls covered in red paint through neighborhoods as horrified residents tried to calm their frightened toddlers. On May 1st, Terry and a small group of these stroller pushers achieved their first well-publicized arrest on Notre Dame’s campus. Many more arrests would follow in the coming weeks.

As graduation day approached, rumors circulated that up to 20,000 protesters would descend on campus for commencement weekend. A student organization calling itself Notre Dame Response was formed, claiming it was a coalition of campus groups planning to protest Obama’s speech. When the day arrived, however, the anti-abortion masses never appeared. Only 26 seniors and their families — out of a graduating class of 2,900 — skipped commencement to protest Obama’ presence. And 23 student groups actually endorsed Obama’s invitation to speak. No students were counted among the dozens arrested over the weekend (many of them repeat offenders), while a mere 150 off-campus protesters demonstrated against Obama’s speech.


Yet curiously, no pro-choice demonstration took place at Notre Dame that weekend to combat all the anti-abortion hype. A handful of students did line up holding “Pro-Obama” signs, but “choice” never made its way into the campus discourse. It seems that the established pro-choice organizations preferred to let Obama represent their side of the debate.

He did not. On the contrary, his speech called for those on opposing sides of the abortion debate to find “common ground … to work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term.” Obama’s speech never articulated his own support for women who choose abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy. His speech was so conciliatory to abortion opponents that even the Pope expressed delight. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano praised Obama’s speech and noted that Obama had stated at a recent press conference that passing a Freedom of Choice Act, which would protect women’s right to choose, was not high on his list of priorities.

As such, Randall Terry was able to transform Notre Dame into ground zero for the most maniacal wing of the anti-choice movement without ever being forced to answer a coherent defense of the right to choose.

Shortly before Notre Dame’s commencement, a new Gallup poll was released claiming that for the “first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.” The poll found 51 percent describing themselves as “pro-life,” up 7 points from a year ago. To be sure, the same poll showed that 53 percent of respondents also believe that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances. But this severe erosion of support for choice – which stood at 75 percent in 1973 – should be a wake-up call for abortion rights advocates.

Obama appears intent on replaying the Clinton-era scenario, in which the pro-choice presidential candidate promises supporters that he will pass the Freedom of Choice Act while on the campaign trail. Once elected, his enthusiasm vanishes and, when pro-choice supporters do not protest this betrayal, the legislation never materializes. Indeed, the pro-choice movement’s silence during Clinton’s two terms allowed the passage of a wide array of anti-abortion restrictions in states around the country — including mandatory parental consent and notification laws for minors, 24-hour waiting periods and anti-abortion “counseling” — allowing abortion rights to recede under the watch of a pro-choice president.

Entrusting politicians to defend legal abortion has proven a disaster for the pro-choice movement. The movement embarked on this calamitous strategy in the late-1980s, when the leaders of the largest pro-choice organizations, including the National Abortion Rights Action League (now called NARAL Pro-Choice America) decided to adapt their argument for choice to one more acceptable to rightward moving Democrats. NARAL issued a “talking points” memo to its affiliates in 1989, instructing staffers not to use phrases such as “a woman’s body is her own to control” and to reshape the right to choose as a “privacy” issue.

In so doing, the politically passive pro-choice movement allowed the more aggressive anti-abortion crusade to successfully hijack the very definition of “life” in the abortion debate. Removing women’s rights from the debate allowed the rights of embryos to supersede those of living, breathing women desperate to end an unintended pregnancy.

Since Clinton’s election in 1992, the anti-abortion crusade has remained defiant while the pro-choice movement has been in steady retreat. This is the only way to understand how a small but dedicated army of religious zealots has managed to successfully transform the political terrain in its favor — and why a figure as ridiculous as Randall Terry is now regarded as legitimate within the political mainstream.


Those who specialize in doctoring photos of babies care little about saving women’s lives. But large numbers of women die when abortion is illegal, because they are forced to undergo unsafe procedures performed in unsanitary conditions. If they develop an infection, they are often reluctant to go to the hospital for fear of arrest. In 2003, the World Health Organization estimated that 78,000 women around the world die from unsafe abortions every year. The death toll during the century when abortion was illegal in the U.S. is unknown, but the number is certainly large  — and some estimates are as high as 10,000 each year. A University of Colorado study done in the late 1950s reported that 350,000 women experienced postoperative complications each year from illegal abortions in the U.S.

One in every three U.S. women — including one in every three practicing Catholics — has an abortion in her lifetime. Indeed, the abortion rate has been rising as the economy worsens in the current recession, while the National Network of Abortion Funds told the New York Times that calls to its hotline requesting financial help are almost four times higher than a year ago. The majority of women who undergo abortions are young and low-income. So legal abortion is not a marginal issue but an urgent need for millions of women.

Women bear the ultimate responsibility for carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term—often as single parents, earning wages that are much lower than men’s. It is not a coincidence that female-headed households are the most likely families to be living in poverty in the U.S. today.  For all these reasons, the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy should belong to the pregnant woman alone.

The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in 1973 was the greatest victory of the women’s liberation movement — and it was the product of struggle. If support for abortion has declined in recent years, it is not because the right to choose is any less necessary. On the contrary, there is an urgent need to build a new pro-choice movement that reinserts women into the abortion debate and wages an uncompromising fight for abortion without apology.

SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at:




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