Roe in Rough Waters
En route to swift delivery is a ban on "partial-birth" abortions, a ban on human embryonic cloning, the Child Custody Protection Act, the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Each bill is notably uninterested in protecting the woman's rights, worrying instead about the fetus, the pregnant woman's parents (if she's a minor) and the religious healthcare worker. (This value system was reinforced on January 14, when George W. Bush declared National Sanctity of Human Life Day for the following Sunday.) There isn't a lot of reason to believe that these proposals, which have all passed in the House before, won't clear the new Senate in the near future.
"These are the worst threats I have ever seen in thirty years of this work," says Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). Within days of winning back the Senate and keeping the House, Republicans made their first moves on reproductive freedom. Mississippi's Trent Lott, then poised to become Senate majority leader, promised a ban on late-term abortions, a gift to conservative Christians in his party. After Lott was forced to resign due to his sudden endorsement of affirmative action on Black Entertainment Television, Dr. Bill Frist of Tennessee stepped into his cowboy boots. Dr. Frist, a dashing cardiovascular surgeon from a state that flunks NARAL's contraceptive-access report card, is just as conservative as Lott and brings with him the added ammo of being a doctor, as he made clear during the "partial birth" abortion wars of 1998 (soon to be reprised). "As a physician," he remarked at the time of President Clinton's veto of a ban on D&X (intact dilation and extraction, or so-called partial birth) procedures, "I believe that partial-birth abortions cannot and should not be categorized with other medical procedures--or even other abortions.... For the sake of women, their children and our future as a society, we must put a stop, once and for all, to partial-birth abortion." His press release urges the Senate to "listen to the facts"--facts on which he, the only MD in the bunch, presumably has a grip. As a heart surgeon, though, Dr. Frist is not a medical expert on matters of reproduction any more than a gynecologist is well versed in angioplasty. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (representing 95 percent of the field) believes a ban of the D&X abortion procedure to be "inappropriate" and "dangerous."
Recently, Dr. Frist did the Sunday morning talk-show circuit, confidently discussing a ban on D&X procedures as if it were already in the bag. But as PPFA's Gloria Feldt points out, "The Republicans could overreach and fail." Advocates "out in the field are not despairing at all; they are angry." Feldt also notes that the general public is "connecting the dots in terms of the Administration's war on women." As far as the D&X ban goes, Feldt believes that the 2000Stenberg v. Carhart Supreme Court decision (which held that bans on abortion procedures without an exception for the health of the mother are in violation of Roe) is helpful. "There will be an argument within the Republican leadership between those who will want a bill that they know to be constitutional and those who will want to be more extreme," Feldt told me. "They may kill their own chances and not make it constitutional. This type of legislation gives us the opportunity to lay the case for laws to codify principles of Roe."
Planned Parenthood reports that Dr. Frist has voted to "limit or deny access to the constitutional right to abortion services of women in the military, women federal employees, low-income women, women in prison and young women. He never missed an opportunity to vote to make abortion a right that more and more women cannot exercise." It will come as no surprise, then, that Frist is a big-time proponent of abstinence-only sex education, voting for a $75 million budget to lobby teenagers not to have sex in lieu of acknowledging that many do and providing them with information and contraception. This, when poor teenagers have an abortion rate that is rapidly rising.
Dr. Frist and the anti-sex education crowd are clearly speaking to an imaginary teen population. There is a direct relationship between poverty and abortion, and an utter ignorance about sex and procreation is epidemic. This especially has an impact on later-term abortions. "The women I see can't get any healthcare to determine how pregnant they are and often don't know their own cycle. Sometimes, by the time they get their Medicaid straightened out and can come in, they are at twenty-seven weeks," says a counselor at Parkmed Eastern Women's Center, sighing. "Last week I told a woman with six children living in a shelter that she is having number seven."
The reproductive rights movement needs to amplify the voices of the women affected by Republican bans on Medicaid for abortions, bans that result in the death of more-developed fetuses and untold hardships for the women and their families. Instead, we have too frequently reached out to a stereotypical "young woman" who is clueless, ungrateful and often in need of a "wake-up call." In fact, of the ninety-seven funds under the National Network of Abortion Funds, many are staffed by younger women. Both Haven and NYAAF are run by 23-year-olds, NOW-NYC by a 27-year-old. Planned Parenthood's VOX program (on many campuses) and most of the work on choice that the Feminist Majority does (also on college campuses) is run entirely by young women, as is Choice USA and the Pro-Choice Public Education Project. "Face it, younger women are the ones that are having abortions," says Amy Richards, 32, who administered an abortion fund through the Third Wave Foundation until just this past year. "And they are coming to abortion politics through personal experience--just as it was thirty years ago."