The Bush Administration may be mired in confusion and at cross-purposes on many fronts–Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, education–but its assault on women’s reproductive freedom has been a marvel of purpose and planning. It is hard to believe that during the last presidential election the fashionable view held that both candidates were basically posturing on abortion to fire up their base. Roe v. Wade, was untouchable, countless pundits assured us: Republican strategists would never really go after abortion, because they feared awakening the sleeping pro-choice electoral giant. The dire warnings of Planned Parenthood, NARAL and NOW were just a direct-mail scare tactic. When Bush won the White House, the story line was similar: Having lost the popular vote, the President would govern from the center, as the “uniter not a divider” he claimed to want to be.
The past three years have shown how unwise that worldly wisdom was. Backed by Bush and capitalizing on Democratic disarray, opponents of legal abortion have scored one victory after another. We’ve had the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and health coverage of poor pregnant women morphing into health coverage for the fetus under the Children’s Health Insurance Program. We’ve seen Bush nominate a flood of extreme right-wingers to the federal bench and use recess appointments to install two who had been filibustered out by the Democrats. Bush’s judicial picks will shape the courts for decades to come and provide a talent pool for the Supreme Court seats that are certain to open up in the next few years. Thanks to the newly released papers of Justice Harry Blackmun, we now know that in 1992 the Supreme Court nearly overturned Roe. Who would say Roe is more secure today than it was then?
Globally, the Administration has used American might to advance an agenda pleasing to Christian conservatives at home. Poor women around the world have been denied reproductive healthcare through Bush’s reinstatement of the “gag rule” and his refusal to release $34 million pledged by Congress to the United Nations Population Fund (the latter decision was based on the bogus claim–disproved by Bush’s own fact-finding commission–that UNFPA supports forced abortion in China). The Administration has capitulated to fundamentalist demands by earmarking a third of all prevention dollars in its international AIDS package for abstinence education–while failing to provide the Global Fund to Fight AIDS with desperately needed dollars. Bush sent antifeminist delegates to UN conferences on children, sustainable development and population to wreck consensus by aligning the United States with the Vatican, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Saddam’s Iraq.
The repressive sexual politics of the antiabortion movement have infected the public schools, pouring some $135 million annually into abstinence-only education (which got its start, it must be noted, in the welfare reform law signed by President Clinton). If the Republicans have their way, funding for these programs–which mandate that birth-control methods may be discussed only in terms of their failure rates, and homosexuality, abortion and masturbation may not be discussed at all–will double next year.
Antichoice politics have also corrupted science: Bush put the kibosh on stem-cell research and has packed crucial expert panels with right-wing ideologues and evangelicals of dubious professional qualifications, of whom Dr. David Hager, who advises women that Christian prayer helps PMS, is only the most notorious. And they have invaded the Justice Department, which has issued warrants for the private hospital records of women who have had abortions. Also because of this politicization, the expected decision to make emergency contraception available over the counter has been delayed and may be denied-not because it is a risky medication but because of an unfounded belief that ready access to a pregnancy-preventing drug will make young women promiscuous.
Emboldened by the encouraging climate at the federal level, the states have become hotbeds of antichoice activism. This past year, flagrantly unconstitutional bans on all or most abortions were considered in fourteen states; South Dakota’s failed by a single vote. In all, 558 antichoice measures, a record, were considered around the nation; forty-five were enacted. And it’s not just abortion: Sixteen bills were introduced in state legislatures that would require parental notice or consent for a minor to obtain contraception; Title X clinics, which provide birth control for low-income women, are being quietly defunded.
Enough is enough. On April 25, some 1,300 progressive and feminist organizations–Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, NOW, the Feminist Majority, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, the ACLU, the NAACP and the Coalition of Labor Union Women among them–will spearhead a massive March for Women’s Lives in Washington. It is an impressively broad-based coalition, defying the stereotype of the pro-choice movement as staid, white, middle-aged and middle-class. Championing not just reproductive freedom but women’s rights and dignity across the board–compulsory marriage classes for low-income women, anyone?–the march, early word has it, is drawing outraged women and men by the busload and carload from every corner of the nation.
The sleeping giant is waking up–and not a moment too soon.