Reproductive rights

American women take their right to an abortion for granted. They shouldn't anymore.

Published January 22, 2003 8:33PM (EST)

On the 30th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the historic Supreme Court decision that found state laws banning abortion to be unconstitutional, it is safe to say that many Americans take the ruling for granted. It never has been easy to choose to terminate a pregnancy, but it has, for three decades, been possible to do so without the compounding fear of fatal injury or arrest. Harrison Hickman, a spokesman for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL Pro Choice America), told the New York Times that focus groups reveal a lack of awareness among younger voters about the seriousness of the issue. "For a lot of them," he said, "if you showed them a coat hanger, they don't know what it means."

Hickman's ominous statement came on the eve of the Roe vs. Wade anniversary not as a declaration of victory but as a dire warning. A woman's right to terminate a pregnancy has never been so tenuous, its meaning never so compromised, he says, as it is now. His supporters -- and his opponents -- agree. A quick look at the Choice Scorecard released recently by Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Queens, N.Y., counts more than 180 "anti-choice" actions taken by the Republican-dominated Congress since 1995. Most of the legislative actions were defeated in the Senate, which is now controlled by a Republican majority.

Even without victory in the Senate, President Bush has been remarkably successful on many fronts. The administration's recent moves to weaken reproductive rights range from the declaration of "Human Sanctity of Life Day" (Jan. 20), to a steady stream of presidential appointments to posts with influence on reproductive-rights issues. Three key appointments: the vocally antiabortion John Ashcroft to attorney general, the similarly minded Tommy Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin, to head the Department of Health and Human Services, and Dr. W. David Hager to lead the Food and Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Hager, a Kentucky OB/GYN who frequently prescribes Bible study as a treatment for PMS, is described by Maloney as putting "ideology before health" in his treatment of female patients. At the same time, Bush has increased government funding for abstinence-only programs, many of which do not include information about birth control, in the nation's schools.

Perhaps the most threatening development, say abortion-rights advocates, is the potential change in the Supreme Court, which now upholds Roe vs. Wade by a one-vote margin. In a worst-case scenario, they say, either Sandra Day O'Connor or John Paul Stevens could step down within the next two years, and Bush could replace him or her with an antiabortion candidate. That would create the possibility of Roe vs. Wade being overturned. Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, was asked to describe the resultant worst-case scenario. "Well, have you ever read Margaret Atwood's book 'A Handmaid's Tale'?" she said. "How about that? Women as vessels."

In Atwood's novel, women are essentially slaves, childbearing machines with little other purpose on the planet. It is a chilling book, particularly because it is set not in the past or in a mythical realm, but in the near future, among a generation of women who had come to expect to maintain their reproductive rights. Feldt points to legislation like the Child Health Insurance Program, which insures a fetus, not its mother, as a step in the "Handmaid's" direction.

"By insuring the health of the fetus over that of the woman, the goal is to give the fetus a higher legal status than the woman," Feldt says. "Again, it's women as vessels."

She points out that the Roe vs. Wade decision relied largely on the constitutional right to privacy, which, prior to its application in Roe, had been cited in other landmark rulings that had significant implications for reproductive rights. One's legal right to privacy was the crux of the court's decisions in Griswold vs. Connecticut and Eisenstadt vs. Baird, which guaranteed access to birth control regardless of marital status. Should Roe be overturned, warns Feldt, the legal foundations of those other cases also could crumble. "In a realistic worst-case scenario," she says, "we could lose not only our right to abortion, but even our right to birth control."

In overturning Roe vs. Wade, the court and the Bush administration would risk alienating many voters since, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, more than six out of 10 Americans oppose such a move. But Feldt thinks this is a war that abortion opponents -- chief among them, President Bush -- plan to fight on many fronts, an approach she refers to as a "pernicious web." Says Feldt, "To date, Bush has been very clever about staying under the radar screen, and not staging a broadside attack. I believe it's our job to smoke him out."

"The thing to remember," adds Maloney, "is that many of these groups that oppose legal abortion also oppose contraception and many common-sense preventative measures. And when you think about pro-choice Americans, this also includes family planning."

Women who have come of age taking the rights guaranteed by Roe vs. Wade for granted will need to become familiar with the threats to reproductive rights, say pro-choice proponents. Says Feldt, "This may be a lesson that the next generation has to relearn. And a war that the next generation has to fight."

By Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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