George W. Bush’s warm greeting to the throngs of anti-abortion protesters massed in Washington, D.C., on January 22–the 30th anniversary of legal abortion in the U.S.–signaled the escalation of a war on women’s rights that began on his first day in office.
As Bush’s first presidential act in 2001, he launched a global assault on abortion rights by reimposing the Reagan-era “gag” rule–overturned by Bill Clinton–that bars U.S. funds to any family planning agency that even mentions abortion during counseling, even if it uses its own money to do so.
Last year, the Bush administration withdrew U.S. support for the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. And last July, Bush blocked $34 million in U.S. funding–previously approved by Congress–for the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), an agency that does not offer abortion, but provides maternity health services to poor women without access to hospitals. The UNPF provides emergency birthing kits to Afghan women, who have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world–the very women, in fact, that Bush claimed to be “liberating” last year.
Poor women suffer inside the U.S. as well. Most states deny Medicaid payments for most abortions for poor women, even when they have cancer or diabetes.
Beneath Bush’s rhetoric about compassionate conservatism, he is a raving right-winger, eager to please his constituents in the Christian Right. Bush plans to sign into law new restrictions on abortion in the coming months–starting with a ban on late-term abortions already passed by the House and a ban on “transporting a minor across state lines” to obtain an abortion. Bush has made no secret of the fact that his real goal is overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.
But the administration faces a serious obstacle in doing so–a consistent majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal. This isn’t surprising, since one-third of all women in the U.S. will have an abortion before the age of 45.
What is lacking, however, is a movement that can galvanize the pro-choice majority into a fighting force to defend abortion rights. The existing pro-choice organizations, like the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), long ago abandoned this focus. In fact, NARAL has already launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to elect a pro-choice president in 2004–and changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America to underscore this emphasis.
When thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators rallied in Washington on January 22, NARAL organizers were too busy to organize a pro-choice rally. They were holding an expensive dinner for Democratic presidential hopefuls instead.
That same week, the New York Times carried an op-ed article co-authored by a pro- and anti-abortion activist, titled “The Right to Agree.” The authors argued that those on both sides of the abortion issue should abandon “old” and “tired” animosities and work together on issues of agreement, such as promoting abstinence. Yet abstinence programs are part and parcel of the Christian Right agenda, aimed at turning back the clock on women’s rights.
The Washington Post recently documented the sort of “morality” promoted by one abstinence “educator” in Lubbock, Texas: “Will this condom protect your reputation?” a middle-aged man warned an auditorium of eighth-graders. “You’ll still be known as a slut.” The pro-choice movement should be fighting against everything the Christian Right stands for–not desperately seeking points of agreement to try to win votes for Democrats.
Mass protest was part of a movement for women’s liberation that won legal abortion in 1973. At the time, another raving right-winger–Richard Nixon–occupied the White House, and the Supreme Court was packed with conservative appointees. Far from “old” and “tired,” a clear and confident pro-choice movement is exactly what is needed.