A New Model in the Fight for Abortion Rights

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A New Model in the Fight for Abortion Rights

Anti-abortion and pro-choice activists crowd together in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. D.C., during a 2011 rally. (AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Republicans insist that they care deeply about American families. But taken together, their actions in recent months—along with their inaction—on a string of modest and long-overdue proposals to improve the lot of poor and middle-income women and their families tell a different story. What the party really seems to care about are fetuses, and pretty much only fetuses.

The solid proposals that Congress has ignored, defeated or stalled this year would have, if approved, made a real difference in the working lives and personal security of millions of American women and the men who love them.

Barack Obama’s it’s-about-time proposals for paid sick days and maternity leave—good ideas that nearly every other developed nation and many poorer ones long ago adopted—died on arrival in the GOP-led Congress soon after the president unveiled them in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address.

Legislation to toughen penalties on sexual assault initially drew bipartisan support since protecting women in the armed services and on college campuses from rape is a no-brainer. But as some Republican lawmakers in Congress and statehouses fixated on the definition of rape, legislative action ground to a halt. The problem for the GOP majority? A rape victim who becomes pregnant might want to terminate her pregnancy.

Other issues of special interest to women and families that have come under consideration this year have been the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicare reimbursements to physicians—programs up for reauthorization in recent months—and legislation to curb sex trafficking. But Republicans kept ginning up abortion riders, imposing new restrictions on the procedure as a condition for “yes” votes and triggering needless delays. They seemed to feel no shame in making women and families pawns in their political games.

Like Dr. Strangelove’s uncontrollable right arm, Republicans just can’t stop. They are obsessed with abortion or, more precisely, with eliminating it.

Their obsession infuriates me and it should infuriate you. Women have made enormous economic, political and social strides in recent decades; my 27-year-old daughter and her generation have opportunities that we baby boomers only dreamed about 30 years ago. Gender discrimination has been largely outlawed in education and on the job. A woman—the second to hold the post—has just become U.S. attorney general, a woman has been speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a woman who was the second female secretary of state and a U.S. senator is now running for president.

That’s the glass half full. But treading water in the glass are millions of employees—disproportionately women in low-wage jobs and often single mothers—still without such minimal benefits as paid sick leave or guaranteed vacation, not to mention a living wage. Full-time working women still earn an average of only 82 percent of what men earn, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. As many as 43 million private-sector workers are still often forced to make a brutal choice: They can work when they are sick or have a feverish toddler or they can stay home and risk losing their jobs. No other developed nation allows companies to be so hard-hearted.

Forget “leaning in,” as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, urges women to do, encouraging them to embrace challenges and risk at work. Many American women are instead toppling over from the exhaustion of balancing jobs and family, often on Dickensian wages and under impossible work schedules.

Meanwhile, the party of Lincoln has largely narrowed its agenda for women and families to this: stamp out legal access to abortion, bankrupt and demonize women’s health care providers and subject them to criminal prosecution, and shame women who either don’t want or can’t handle another child.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and the dramatic reversals earlier this month of so-called religious freedom legislation in Indiana and Arkansas, laws that originally pandered to those who disapprove of same-sex marriage, offer a path forward and some hope for the pro-choice movement.

The picture in many statehouses is as grim as the one in Congress. Some Colorado legislators are attacking continuation of a popular state program that in recent years has provided IUDs without charge to some 30,000 women. Since this program has been in effect, Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate has dropped by a whopping 40 percent and the rate of teen abortions has fallen 34 percent. Continued funding for the program is in jeopardy because hard-right lawmakers believe that an IUD, which prevents an egg from implanting in the uterus, is actually a form of abortion, not contraception, even though no reputable medical organization agrees with their position.

In Utah, lawmakers responding to national concern about the incidence of sexual assault in the military and on college campuses proposed legislation meant to clarify that an unconscious person cannot, in a legal sense, be seen as consenting to sex. But according to The Salt Lake Tribune, state Rep. Brian Greene fretted that the proposed language might be overly intrusive. “If an individual has sex with their wife while she is unconscious,” Greene ventured, “a prosecutor could then charge that spouse with rape, theoretically. That makes sense in a first-date scenario, but to me, not where people have a history of years of sexual activity.”

Surely this qualifies Greene for this year’s Todd Akin Award. Part of what he’s worried about, I imagine, is whether a woman who becomes pregnant as the result of rape—whether she was conscious or not—has any right to abort the pregnancy. (Greene’s statement, which he had to walk back, of course, raised a larger question: If you find your wife unconscious, shouldn’t your first reaction be to call the paramedics rather than to nail her?)

In these opening months of the 2016 presidential campaign, the GOP establishment is trying to position the party as less like Brian Greene—less doltish and, frankly, less crazy. No more clown car of candidates, no more talk of “legitimate” rape that would, as Akin memorably asserted during a 2012 campaign in Missouri for the U.S. Senate, cause a woman’s body to “shut that whole thing down,” blocking conception. No more declarations that children conceived through rape are “something God intended,” as Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock opined. (Fortunately, those statements were too much even for voters in solidly red states and both men lost their races.)

Three years later, here we are again. The party’s official platform still calls for a human life amendment to the Constitution as well as legislation to extend the 14th Amendment’s protections to fetuses. It would bar all taxpayer funds to organizations like Planned Parenthood that perform abortions, no matter that millions of women with no other health care provider depend on such groups for breast cancer screenings, annual Pap tests and checkups, and birth control.

If we’re honest, we must admit that the Republican Party’s remarkable success to date in its anti-abortion crusade speaks to the disillusionment and silence of my fellow baby boomers, and the complacency of my daughter’s generation. The dramatic erosion of abortion and reproductive health rights is also testament to the single-mindedness of evangelicals and their right-wing allies, as well as the profound cynicism or apathy of establishment Republicans who either willingly join ranks with those on the fringe or are unwilling to buck them.

We who believe in the right of women to make their own choices need to take a lesson from the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people: find new allies and make noise. Lots more noise.

As Katha Pollitt argues in her new book, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights,” my generation has gone AWOL. The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, granting women a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, and major advances in access to contraception were especially important to us because we were of childbearing age in the 1960s and ’70s. We have firsthand memories of diaphragms that failed, IUDs that caused infection and sterility, and the terror of an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. Many women of my generation—myself included—marched in Washington for safer, more reliable birth control. We helped shield clinic patients from aggressive anti-abortion protesters blocking their paths and loudly warning of eternal damnation. We lobbied our employers for paid maternity leave and insurance policies that cover birth control. I believe we made a difference.

But we’re older now, and other issues, like the threat of serious illness and the economic losses of recent years, take precedence in our lives. We’re more likely to march for better treatment and prevention of breast cancer, maybe less so for abortion rights. We despair over the gridlock in Washington and the nation’s ever stronger red-blue divisions, and we sometimes shrug and turn our energies to book clubs and Zumba classes. I plead guilty.

By contrast, our daughters and, yes, our sons, grew up taking for granted that birth control was safe, effective and available. And that in many states, including California, where I live, abortion would be safe, legal and available should they need it. Maybe they are not as conscious of what it would mean to lose it.

Yet that possibility is real. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 38 states now require pregnant teens to first notify their parents or obtain their consent for the procedure; 26 enforce a waiting period in the hope that pregnant women will change their minds; 19 impose various bans on late-term abortions; and 23 require mandatory and often invasive ultrasound examinations and “counseling,” again to shame women for their supposed selfishness.

Licensing laws that subject abortion clinics to more unnecessary and costly regulations than some outpatient cosmetic surgery facilities were passed specifically to force closure of dozens of clinics around the country. They have succeeded. Just one clinic operates in Mississippi now, and only a handful in many other states. This month Kansas and Oklahoma, where abortion access was already severely restricted, banned a common second-trimester abortion procedure that critics say is often the safest to terminate pregnancies at that stage. Look for other states to follow.

This demeaning turn of events should goad us back into action. We need to talk frankly to our daughters and our sons about what it would mean to lose access to legal abortion or to have fewer birth control options, not because of scientific facts but because of the religious beliefs of lawmakers.

We need to make so much noise that reproductive rights become an issue for corporate America. When Wal-Mart, Angie’s List and a number of other companies raised objections to Indiana’s religious freedom law, Gov. Mike Pence and state legislators quickly amended the law to clarify that it does not condone discrimination against gay men and lesbians. A similar sequence of events occurred in Arkansas.

Public pressure and the threat of government action to raise the minimum wage no doubt prompted McDonald’s and Target in recent weeks to increase the pay of their lowest-paid workers. Yes, it’s not much, but it’s a start.

The GOP’s about-face on the religious freedom laws underscores what I have long believed: that many establishment Republicans care more about protecting their economic interests and public image than about same-sex marriage, abortion or other social issues. Once major corporations realized that they might be subject to boycotts in states that legalized discrimination against LGBT people, both conservative businesspeople and Republican legislators called for change. Public support for adding a few coins to the pittance that low-wage workers earn, along with fear that lawmakers or voters might force bigger wage hikes, clearly prompted some companies to bump up hourly pay. 

Would the same happen if we made a bigger ruckus about access to reliable contraception and safe abortion? I don’t know, but we’ve largely let business off the hook on reproductive health in recent years. Meanwhile, last year the U.S. Supreme Court granted privately held companies like Hobby Lobby and Eden Foods the right as corporate “persons” to impose the religious beliefs of their owners on their employees. As a result, they now ban insurance coverage for IUDs and other safe and effective forms of contraception despite mandates in the Affordable Care Act. I suspect that many more CEOs are largely uninterested in the private health care decisions of their employees; they have largely remained silent while access to reproductive health care has constricted nationwide because there is no political or economic downside for doing so, even as their employees pay a steep economic, personal and financial toll for the GOP’s anti-choice agenda.

Beyond birth control and abortion, there are certainly many serious issues facing American women and their families, such as mandated paid sick days and maternity leave, a stronger minimum wage and pay equity. But I fear that before we can get to these, we will have to pry the Republican Party away from its obsession with women’s bodies.


Molly Selvin

Molly Selvin, a former member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board, is a research fellow at Stanford University.

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