Showdown at the Supreme Court

George W. Bush is getting his chance to put a right winger on the U.S. Supreme Court who can overturn a woman’s right to abortion and bolster the already conservative majority. But around the country, there is an urgent sense that we need to take action and send a message to the politicians: We won’t go back!

The National Organization for Women (NOW) declared a “state of emergency,” and in the midst of the group’s national conference in Tennessee, more than 800 people marched to the state capitol building in support of abortion rights. Other emergency mobilizations action alerts had been called in cities such as Chicago and New York, as Socialist Worker went to press.

The instinct to take to the streets was a welcome response to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s unexpected announcement on July 1 that she is retiring. But it’s critical that supporters of the right to choose not fall back on the failed strategies of lobbying and letter writing–and concentrate on mobilizing a grassroots response.

Before the July 4 weekend, the media were filled with speculation about whether Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is suffering from cancer, would retire. Rehnquist is one of the most right-wing judges on the court, so Bush would have a hard time finding someone more conservative to replace him.

But O’Connor has been the “swing” vote on the Court on a number of issues ranging from affirmative action to the death penalty.

On abortion rights, her vote is considered especially important. O’Connor was credited with “saving” legal abortion in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision in 1989 that–by a 5-to-4 margin–upheld legal abortion.

Yet O’Connor doesn’t deserve the tributes she got from liberals and pro-choice organizations after her retirement announcement.

“Twenty-four years ago, as president of the National Organization for Women, I testified for Sandra Day O’Connor before the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “I knew then that O’Connor, although a conservative voice, would be one who would not permit the elimination of women’s fundamental rights, including the right to privacy.”

But it should be pointed out that while her vote preserved the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, O’Connor has also helped anti-abortionists chip away at abortion rights–by voting to uphold restrictions such as mandatory waiting periods and parental consent laws for young women. In other words, while O’Connor voted to keep abortion legal, she made sure to severely limit the right of ordinary women to get one.

The mainstream media immediately began a frenzied guessing game over who Bush would nominate to replace O’Connor.

One early favorite was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales–the architect of the Bush administration’s torture policies in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Nonetheless, Gonzales is viewed as a moderate–because the hard-line conservative organizations that make up Bush’s base consider him unacceptably pro-choice.

The right wingers want someone like 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Michael Luttig–who in 1998 granted a stay that allowed a Virginia ban on late-term abortion to go into effect. Or D.C. Circuit Court Judge John Roberts–who, as deputy solicitor general for the Bush Sr. administration, helped craft a policy that barred doctors and clinics receiving federal funds from discussing the possibility of abortion with their patients.

Whoever Bush picks to take O’Connor’s place, however, don’t count on the Democratic Party to put up a fight.

On the Democrats’ “Save the Court” Web site, the lead article urges Bush to see O’Connor’s retirement as a “chance to rescue his legacy.” Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean urged Bush to “follow the example established by President Reagan when he nominated Justice O’Connor”–and choose “a moderate, thoughtful jurist.”

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) issued a challenge:

“If the president abuses his power and nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people, then the American people will insist that we oppose that nominee, and we intend to do so.” But in the same breath, Kennedy promised not to apply an abortion “litmus test” to any potential nominee–proclaiming, “I have voted for judges that have been pro-life.”

None of this is surprising coming from a party that already “compromised” with Republicans to not block the most reactionary of Bush’s federal court nominees.

While mainstream pro-choice groups responded quickly to O’Connor’s retirement, they have done little in recent years to mobilize grassroots activism that could turn the tide against the attacks on our right to choose.

Last year, groups like NOW and NARAL had a golden opportunity to begin to rebuild the fight for abortion rights as 1 million people came together in Washington, D.C., for the pro-choice “March for Women’s Lives.” But the opportunity was squandered.

Instead of calling for grassroots action, rally speakers did nothing more than urge a vote for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry–so that, as Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told the crowd, we could “avoid having to march again and again and again.”

A year later, we’re faced with a grave new threat to our rights. There’s no time to waste. Marching “again and again and again”–and giving an active expression to the widespread support for keeping abortion safe and legal–is precisely what can put pressure on the courts and the politicians of both parties.

NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.



















NICOLE COLSON writes for the Socialist Worker.