To many liberals and feminists, George W. Bush’s mishandling of the war on terrorism and reckless economic agenda are not the only reasons to oppose him. There is also a more intimate fear. “President Bush has said he will model nominees after Justices Scalia and Thomas–the Court’s most vocal opponents of the Roe decision,” warns a fundraising letter circulated recently by NARAL Pro-Choice America.
It’s an understandable concern. But what if the principle animating it–that every woman should be assured the basic right to control her body–has already been so severely compromised as to render Roe meaningless for millions of Americans? And what if part of the responsibility for this lies with the very groups entrusted to serve as uncompromising advocates of reproductive rights?
In his new book, Bearing Right, William Saletan argues that the struggle for abortion rights has already been settled–only the victor is not who you might think it is. Thirty years after the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling in Roe, abortion remains legal in all fifty states. Yet according to Saletan, a political correspondent for Slate, it is not liberals but conservatives who have won the abortion war.
The reason is that the struggle for reproductive freedom has been repackaged in terms that would be unrecognizable to the feminists who fought to have abortion legalized during the 1960s. Back then, the struggle was about empowering women to control their bodies and lead independent lives. Today, Saletan argues, it is about limiting government power and affirming the authority not of women but of families. The terms of debate are distinctly conservative, he notes, and the irony is that the pro-choice movement crafted the script itself.
To explain how this came about, Saletan takes us into the world of political consultants and strategists, a world whose intricacies can often cause a reader’s eyes to glaze over. Fortunately, Saletan is a lucid writer who understands the value of brevity. The story begins in Little Rock, Arkansas, where, in 1957, President Eisenhower famously dispatched 1,200 federal troops to protect nine black children from an angry mob intent on preventing them from attending the all-white Central High School. To liberals, the freedom in that battle clearly belonged to the nine black students exercising their civil rights. But in Arkansas and much of the South, Saletan reminds us, it belonged just as unmistakably to white parents seeking to educate their children without government interference.
Fast-forward three decades to 1986, and this same principle would resonate in a very different context. That year, pro-choice activists gathered in Little Rock to strategize over how to defeat a pro-life ballot measure that proposed banning all public funding for abortion. Arkansas had a Democratic governor at the time, a smooth-talking moderate from Hope named William Jefferson Clinton. But though Clinton reportedly hoped the measure would fail, the future President in him sensed its popularity and refused to oppose it.
How, then, to defeat the measure? Some feminists advocated launching a campaign focusing on the women who would suffer most from a funding ban, “the poorest of the poor.” The trouble is that surveys showed a majority of Americans opposed using tax dollars to fund abortions for poor women, a view rooted as much in antigovernment and antitax sentiment as in pro-life beliefs (tellingly, opposition spiked when the phrase “women on welfare” was tossed in). Waging such a struggle might rally the faithful–“all fourteen feminists,” one activist from Little Rock joked–but it was also guaranteed to fail.