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Recalling the Lessons of the 1920s

The New Abortion Wars

by DAVID ROSEN

The U.S. is facing resurgence in the war against a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Congress contained the Bush administration’s more virulent anti-abortion efforts, especially after the 2006 election. Since Obama’s election and the Democrats takeover of Congress, abortion has been a hostage to political horse-trading as evident in the Stupak compromise restricting abortion from insurance coverage that finally got the health reform legislation passed.

Unfortunately, as national media attention has moved on to other matters, the battle over abortion and other culture-war issues has shifted from the Congress to state legislatures. Across the country, especially in what are known as red states, the Christian right has moved stealthily, yet aggressively, to further tighten restrictions on “legal” abortions. These efforts have been remarkably successful, likely foreshadowing a major campaign against Roe at both the federal and state levels following a likely strong showing by rightwing Republicans in the 2010 Congressional elections.

This new anti-abortion movement is a continuation of the old religious war against a woman’s right to choose and for sexual freedom, but with some important new twists. The domestic and foreign policy crises Obama inherited from the Bush administration, combined with Obama’s own compromises, have provided a great cover for a refocused anti-abortion movement. The just-say-No Republican party, together with the inflammatory Tea-Party movement, has refocused the mainstream media away from abortion and other cultural issues to “big” government, the national debt and immigration.

The anti-abortion warriors have used this cover to wage campaigns requiring women considering an abortion to undergo an ultrasound visualization of the fetus, banning abortion coverage in the state employees’ health plan and restricting public funding of abortion under the new health-insurance exchanges. In addition, they are employing provocative public media campaigns like the billboards in Georgia targeting African-Americans (i.e., black babies as an “endangered species”) and slick posters on the New York City subways (i.e., “abortion changes you”) to push a more sophisticated anti-abortion message.

Today’s anti-abortion warriors, like other disaffected rightwingers, are finding renewed fervor under the banner of the Tea-Party movement. The Tea Party folk rally behind the anti-big-government banner and often insist on avoiding culture-war issues. Yet, with a few exceptions, the Tea Party movement continues the fervent campaign to overturn Roe and end legal abortions.

Today’s new anti-abortion movement draws upon the evangelical right’s longstanding efforts to impose its moral values on all Americans. The most successful of these efforts was the temperance movement, which after nearly three centuries of effort finally succeeded with the passage of the 18th Amendment imposing Prohibition during the 1920s. This effort turned out to be one of the greatest social, political and moral failings in American history.

* * *

According to the Guttmacher Institute an estimated 370 bills regulating abortion were introduced in state legislations in 2010, compared with about 350 in each of the previous five years. This is up from an estimated 250 bills introduced during the early 1990. At least 24 bills have passed so far this year and the final total may top the 34 laws passed in 2005.

A snap shot of some of these state legislative efforts reveals the tenor of the new anti-abortion war.

• Arizona – former governor Janet Napolitano, now secretary of homeland security, originally vetoed abortion restrictions; however, the current governor, Jan Brewer, approved laws restricting abortion coverage under the new health insurance exchanges, state employee insurance and Medicaid as well as tightening medical reporting requirements for those performing abortions. Brewer also recently signed the nation’s most punitive anti-immigration laws.

• Florida — the state legislature passed a law requiring most women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe the fetus; governor Charlie Crist vetoed the bill. Crist, currently running for Senate seat as an independent, recent bolted from the Republican under challenge from Tea-Party conservatives.

• Iowa – legislation has been introduced to prohibit women in rural areas for using Internet video conferencing (i.e., telemedicine) with their doctors for consultation over taking mifepristone (formerly RU-486 or the day-after abortion pill), thus requiring them to travel often great distances for such appointments.

• Kansas — Gov. Mark Parkinson vetoed a bill that would have redefined fetal viability, blocking efforts to restrict later-term abortions; the legislation failed to overturn the veto.

• Kentucky – the state Senate passed a bill that would require a woman seeking an abortion to receive counseling in person at least 24 hours prior to the procedure and requiring her to make two trips to the clinic; the legislation also passed a bill require the woman to undergo an ultrasound procedure.

• Louisiana – legislation was passed barring private insurers from covering "elective" abortions, including women who are victims of rape or incest. the only exception is to save the life of the pregnant woman; it also passed a bill that would limit abortion coverage through the health insurance exchanges.

• Maryland — the legislature passed a measure that barred public funding of abortion unless the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, the woman’s life is at risk, the fetus is affected by a serious abnormality, or the woman’s physical or mental health is at grave risk.

• Mississippi – the governor signed a bill barring insurance companies from covering abortion under the new exchanges.

• Missouri – the legislature passed a law requiring an abortion provider to inform a woman having an abortion after 21 weeks of pregnancy of the purported ability of the fetus to feel pain and to offer her the option of obtaining anesthesia for the fetus.

• Nebraska – the legislature introduced a law banning all abortions after 20 weeks based on the claim that a fetus can feel pain at that point; the law challenges Roe as to the point of a fetus’ viability.

• Oklahoma – the state legislature passed a series of onerous anti-abortion laws, including: a law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound of the fetus at least one hour before the procedure and, adding insult to injury, requiring the woman view the image and provide a detailed description of the fetus (including body parts) to secure the procedure; a law prohibiting parents from suing doctors for not revealing fetal abnormalities during pregnancy; a law requiring doctors who perform abortions to answer 38 questions about each procedure, including the women’s reasons for ending their pregnancies — the conservative legislation overrode Gov. Brad Henry veto.

• South Carolina – the state Senate passed a bill requiring a woman seeking an abortion to undergo two ultrasound procedures, thus extending the waiting period to at least 48 hours.

• Tennessee — passed a law banning coverage of abortion in insurance exchanges and another law requiring clinics to post signs stating it is illegal to coerce a woman to have an abortion.

• Utah — after a headline-grabbing story about a pregnant 17-year-old girl hiring a man for $150 to beat her in an effort to induce a miscarriage, the state legislation passed a law that would charge such woman with homicide; however, the legislation recently withdrawn the bill but the sponsors hope to reintroduce it but with a narrower focus.

• Virginia — the state’s budget restricted Medicaid funding for abortion to cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.

For more information, see Guttmacher Institute, “Monthly State Updates.”

* * *

The Tea-Party movement draws together an incoherent mélange of rightwing enthusiasts ranging from libertarians and free-marketeers to those opposed to Obama-care and social security, federal tax policies and the 14th Amendment, the UN and restrictions of gun ownership and still others disgruntled by an ever-growing list of social ills.

At its core, the Tea Party expresses an incoherent rage by white, middle-aged and “middleclass” Americans against a nation, and a world, that is in crisis and (they believe) let them down. While bellowing loudly against alleged “big” government, the ballooning national debt and in-migration of undocumented workers, it offers little coherent analysis or programmatic solutions to address these ills. The Tea Party right reiterates longstanding conservative efforts to conceal class divisions, restrict social equality and promote racial differences.

The Tea-Party movement hides many sins, foremost being the traditional anti-abortion crusade. Tea Party spokespeople have consciously avoided linking their movement to anti-abortion. This is a strategic decision to downplay divisive culture-war issues and to curry favor with the more orthodox libertarians who defend a nebulous notion of personal liberty. Nevertheless, as evident in its recent Nashville convention, the event began with a customary pledge to the American flag followed by a religious invocation with those in attendance holding hands in common worship of Jesus. At this event, like many other local Tea Party gatherings, anti-abortion crusaders were well in attendance, their most passionate belief, the abolition of abortion (along with sex education and contraceptives), one of the movement’s core values.

The Tea-Party movement draws upon a current of popular unrest and political initiative that has long marked the nation’s character. While it claims the Boston tea party as inspiration, two early popular movements provide better historical references.

The first is Shays’ Rebellion. In 1787, Massachusetts Revolutionary War veterans found themselves losing their farms due to failure to pay debts and taxes incurred while fighting for their new nation. The uprising was finally crushed, thus establishing the tyrannical power of the centralized nation state. On Shays’ uprising, Thomas Jefferson famously noted, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

The second inspiration is the Great Revival, a powerful evangelical movement that arose during the early 19th century and overwhelmed the nation’s rural heartland. This Second Great Awakening (the First took place in the 1740s) spawned new religious denominations, but also the modern temperance movement, the abolitionism culminating in the Civil War and the demand for women’s suffrage the lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

These early movements represent tendencies that have elements of what today would be considers of the “right” (or regressive) or the “left” (progressive) of the modern political spectrum; the split divides those preserving the economic and social status quo from those seeking to transform it into a more egalitarian political order. In the half-century following the Great Revival, America became increasingly polarized between Southern planters committed to slavery and a northern industrial capitalism pushing accumulation through wage labor.

In distinction from the labor and civil-rights movements, the Tea-Party movement is rooted in the rightwing tendency of popular rebellion. It shares much with Know-Nothing proponents of the 1840s and 1850s and, following the Civil War, the Klan, nativists, eugenicists, free marketers and self-serving politicians hungry for votes. However, most illuminating is the Tea Party’s similarity to the temperance movement.

* * *

America’s temperance movement was launched in 1657 when the General Court of Massachusetts prohibited the sale of alcohol “whether known by the name of rumme, strong waters, wine, brandy, etc.” In the decades following the Civil War, groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Anti-Saloon League and corporatist Progressives fought to impose moral order on all Americans, especially ethnic workingclass and women, through adherence to tough abstinence regulations. They succeeded with the adoption of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

Following the Great War, and not unlike today, the U.S. was a nation confronting enormous domestic and geopolitical change. Vast shifts in population, in territorial distribution, in manufacturing, in capitalist finance, in technological infrastructure, in consumer culture were remaking the nation. Like today, the fear engendered by the enormous scale and scope of change led to the scapegoating of immigrants by a vindictive, nativist rightwing through the temperance movement.

While Hispanics are the target of today’s rage, in the good-old days of the ‘20s it was the Germans, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans and Chinese (and lets not forget African-Americans) who bore the brunt of nativist rage; and, like today, Protestant fundamentalists railed against religious threats, then Catholics and Jews, today, Muslims. Not unlike today’s Tea-Party adherents, Christian Prohibitionists found kindred spirit with nativists, Klansmen, eugenicists, free marketeers and self-serving politicians hungry for votes.

Also like today’s Tea-Party effort to overturn the 14th Amendment (i.e., citizenship), after the adoption the 18th Amendment, Prohibitionists introduced more then forty bills in Congress between 1921 and 1928 to subvert Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution (i.e., apportionment based on the census). Like Tea Party advocates, the Drys were a shrinking, throwback movement seeking to hold onto power through fearless determination and outright illegality. So out of whack was Congressional apportionment that, in 1929, a Detroit district represented nearly 1.3 million people while one in Missouri had only 180,000 residents.

Three-quarters of a century later, the battle for equality continues. Once again the nation is facing a crisis, one with both domestic and geopolitical dimensions. It is a crisis that challenges the lives of all Americans, particularly the aging, white middleclass. The right today, a weird amalgam of Tea-Party activists, Christian anti-abortionists, corporate profiteers, financial schemers, media barons and blowhard pundits, has seized upon this middleclass fear to propel a militant campaign for not only political power, but also for social control and moral dominance.

The anti-abortion sentiment is the unstated glue that holds the Tea Party movement together. It is, like temperance, the moral value that unites a fractious mass movement. While Tea-Party affiliates adhere to a host of very specific political issues, anti-abortion is posited as a moral concern, above special interest politics. For anti-abortion advocates, belief in God, a white Christian deity in fact, requires one to oppose a woman’s right to an abortion. The fate of the unborn fetus, like that of the untaken drink, anchors moral rectitude.

Temperance advocates aligned a host of corollary social issues within their moral campaign to anchor a movement: social drunkenness, loss of family income, domestic and public violence, interracial mingling and degenerate sexual practices. Similarly, the anti-abortion movement aligns with campaigns to limit teen sex education, contraceptive products and procedures, obscene or pornographic media and female fashion. Nevertheless, the Tea Party movement shares a (unstated) singular legislative goal: to overturning Roe v. Wade and prohibit all abortions. Stated or unstated, the war against abortion will be the defining issue in the 2010-midterm elections.

DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com.

 

 

 

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