On the 41-Year Anniversary of Roe v Wade, the Struggle for Reproductive Rights Is Finally Gaining Some Momentum . . . But Getting Far More Difficult

By Noreen Connell

Almost from the moment the U.S. Supreme Court issued its weak decision that the legalization of early-stage abortion, like contraception, was based on the principle of privacy (rather than non-discrimination or the right of women to control their own bodies), conservative political and religious forces went on the offensive. So, for the last 40 years, it’s been trench warfare — both ideological and political — over access to legal abortion.


In 2013, political retreat after retreat has resulted in the closure of clinics across the country and a pitched battle over insurance coverage for abortions and contraception under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Even with insurance coverage, women who want this procedure now find that they have to travel long distances or work their way through a maze of legal and medical protocols designed to humiliate them. Several challenges to Roe v. Wade are wending their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet this was also the year that thousands of women crowded into the Texas statehouse to hear Wendy Davis’ filibuster to keep clinics open. An anti-abortion referendum in Albuquerque went down to defeat. Supporters of access to safe, legal abortion seemed to have got their mojo back. Three key dynamics are changing:

The anger and passion is coming back in the effort to keep abortion legal. Amnesia is fading as hypothetical “fears” have become real. Across the country, scores of primly dressed middle-aged legislators (some even Republicans) have taken the floor to speak openly about their own abortions, saying the very same things said 40 years ago in stormy feminist gatherings. Why? State requirements that women seeking abortion must go through a totally unnecessary procedure of having an ultrasound wand inserted in their vaginas made it clear to them, finally, that that the fight was over women’s control over their bodies and sexuality. As Republicans cut off food stamps and even additional nutritional services for pregnant women, their “right to life” rhetoric became increasingly hollow.

“Compromises” haven’t worked. In 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, eliminating Medicaid funding for abortions, because of racial and class attitudes towards poor women. The new understanding was that no federal funds were ever to be used for abortions, so military women got thrown under the bus.

In state after state, the target became young women and their promiscuity, so a host of “parental consent” laws emerged. Then, the target became women who needed surgical abortions in the last trimester of pregnancy.

Anti-abortion forces have run out of women they can marginalize. The fight around private health insurance coverage in the ACA signals an end to the steady retreat over these last four decades. The well-funded pro-choice organizations, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, had listened to too many slick consultants on the futility of fighting for the rights of poor or young women, so they let their local affiliates decide whether to take up these fights. This time the national organizations seem to understand that health insurance coverage is the big enchilada. This time Congresswomen mobilized to stop yet another effort at “compromise.”

Abortion as a “wedge” issue has faded for the Left, but grown for the Right. The calculation behind all these damaging compromises was that the working class was solidly traditional and mobilized through their churches — despite polls and focus group surveys showing that lower-income individuals have a similar (and contradictory) mix of opinions about abortion and sexuality and religion as do individuals from other classes. The Coalition of Labor Union Women had “no position” on abortion for a few years until its largely working-class membership started talking to each other and discovered that most of them were for abortion rights. But the perception persisted.

So, for example, many progressive organizations relegated the abortion issue to its women’s caucus and kept it out of its priority list of causes and activities so as not to be “divisive.” Democrats, in particular, feared this wedge because they felt they needed to become “a big tent.” That was in 2006, when the party was still trying to attract the ever-elusive “NASCAR man.” Now there’s an understanding that this is no longer a winning electoral strategy in most states (but, alas, not all states).

Since 2008, the “women’s vote” has become a key ingredient in electing Democrats and defeating anti-abortion Republicans. When Republican candidates moved increasingly to the right, a segment of women shifted their vote to Democrats.

In turn, progressives have begun to cobble together a key list of priorities that includes issues of sexuality. In 2010, at a large, mostly trade union rally attended by many DSA members in Washington, D.C., I was struck by how often abortion and same-sex marriage were mentioned by speakers, even by some union leaders. At last, the progressive movement (if not the Democratic Party in every state) seems to be working to become a “big tent.”

So how can DSA activists play a meaningful role (besides just showing up at, or organizing, picket lines and protests)?

Person-to-person education. Women who’ve had abortions (both safe and not-so safe) have got to mention this fact to family, friends, and co-workers — even though it can be socially awkward. Men as well have to begin disclosure about their girlfriend’s, their sister’s, maybe even their mother’s abortion.

The battle isn’t just in those backward “red” states. In New York, just this year, the State Senate refused, in part due to Senator Jeffrey D. Klein and his breakaway “Democrats,” to vote for a codification in state law that women have the right to abortion.

NOW-NYS President Zenaida Mendez was arrested for a protest sit-in at the Capitol building. In November, the small Tompkins County NOW chapter set up a picket line outside of the newly opened Hobby Lobby store in Ithaca because this company filed a legal petition before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging employer-mandated insurance coverage of contraceptives by the ACA. Members they hadn’t seen for years came out of the woodwork to join the protest.

Hold your nose and begin parsing the Affordable Care Act requirements. If you have the expertise to track state ACA insurance plans to see if they’ve placed any restrictions on coverage of contraception and abortion services, share this information with other organizations, convene a seminar, get people focused on issues that they might think are boring (because, face it, insurance issues put people to sleep).

Last, but not least, electoral work. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will be “in play” November 2014, so phone bank and get involved in critical primary races this spring. Make sure Democratic candidates support access to safe, legal abortion and support ACA coverage for contraception and abortion. The primary candidate who’s best on the abortion issue is also probably best on raising the minimum wage. Make sure they are.

NoreenConnell2.jpgDSA member Noreen Connell was a member of New York Radical Feminists in the early1970s and served as NOW-NYC chapter president and NOW-NYS president in the 1980s. Her articles on work, family, and education issues have appeared in The Nation, Utne Reader, Social Policy, and New Labor Forum.



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