Abortion Rights: Contested Terrain

Against the Current, No. 3, May/June 1986

Dianne Feeley

THE OUTPOURING of women, especially young women, at the NOW-organized “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles earlier this spring indicates the fundamental strength of the pro­choice movement. It also dramatizes the continuing need for women’s access to abortion. The two actions were the largest demonstration for women’s rights in U.S. history-surpassing the 100,000 strong march for extending the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) deadline in 1978.

What is important for women to recognize is that our fight for control over own bodies is a majority movement. Instead of feeling alone, ashamed and guilty for needing to exert control over our reproductive lives, by marching together women feel the power of being strong, of being united.

Opinion polls show wide support for legalized abortion 83% support women’s right to abortion under some circumstances. Yet despite that fact, the anti­abortion movement-which is clearly a minority position–sets the political tone for the debate over women’s right to choose abortion.

It is only fifteen years ago that a woman named Shirley Wheeler was convicted of “manslaughter” for having an abortion. She was unable to use any form of birth control, and had become a mother as a teenager. When she became pregnant a second time, she secured an abortion. But that was illegal in Florida–and she was arrested, tried, found guilty. At the time, it was estimated that one million women a year had illegal abortions–but most of them didn’t get caught.

Throughout the 1960s official statistics estimated 300 women died each year from back-alley abortions, often recorded simply as “severe hemorrhaging” or “miscarriage.” In New York City 80% of those who died were Black or Spanish-speaking. Statistics revealed the reality: one out of every four woman had an illegal abortion in the course of her reproductive years.

In 1970, under the impact of a legal suit backed up by a women’s coalition (People Against Abortion Laws–PAAL) that organized a whole series of demonstrations, the New York State legislature rushed through a state law permitting abortions through the twenty-fourth week of gestation. The legislators–who had defeated a very weak abortion reform bill the year before-were afraid that the old anti-abortion law would be ruled null and void, and there would be no law in place! As the new bill was signed into law, Governor Rockefeller told the New York Times, “Women’s liberation played an important part in the passage of this bill.”

It was a woman, raped on a country road in Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the famous Roe vs. Wade case. Since that time a whole generation of women has grown up with the right to abortion. One and a half million abortions are performed legally in the U.S. each year, over 90% of them taking place during the first trimester.

Emerging out of a political climate that was beginning to challenge long-held assumptions, women began to organize against anti-abortion laws in the mid-1960s. While in 1968 about 15% of all Americans thought women had the right to abortion, by 1971 50% supported the legalization of abortion under certain circumstances. The change in attitude occurred quickly.

To the powerful combination of legal suits, picket lines and demonstrations, the women’s movement developed an effective new form of political action: the speak outs. These were electrifying. Women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds gave testimony about their lives and their decision to have an abortion. In listening to the testimony, and talking about one’s innermost secrets in public, it became clear that women, faced with limited options, had to make exceedingly difficult decisions.

Often the decision to have the abortion was taken becauseright of women to control their reproductive lives, a number of key questions informed the discussion.

How could women really make the decision about bringing a child into the world when society placed all the burdens of caring for the child upon the individual parents, and primarily the woman? How could women freely decide about becoming mothers when women did not have access to a living wage, adequate health care, housing? Why was funding for birth control so low and who made the decisions about what should be funded? What about women who were forced to undergo sterilization, and therefore were denied the right to children? What kind of a society imposed such choices?

The Reality of Legalized Abortion

Most activists in the fight for legalized abortion saw the passage of the New York state law in 1970 and the Supreme Court decision in 1973 emerging from a combination of three factors. It was clearly an attempt to “head them off at the pass,” to try to “give in” to women’s demands before a full-scale mobilization of women set off a dynamic of deepening the processes of radicalization. Secondly, the demand for legalized abortion did meet the need of employers, whose workforce is based upon women whose family cannot afford to have them withdraw from employment for any extensive period of time.

Thirdly, access to abortion is needed by women of all classes. In 1970, for example, Governor Rockefeller’s wife, Happy Rockefeller, publicized the fact of her abortion years before and supported the movement toward legalized abortion.

So the Supreme Court decision represented a victory over one important aspect of women’s lives. But we recognized that we had not yet built a feminist movement that was able to articulate fully the most advanced understanding on why women needed to control our reproductive lives by the time the Supreme Court issued their ruling. We knew, therefore, that the method of attack on abortion rights would emerge not so much with a head­long confrontation that would outlaw all abortions, but in the cracks, through a process of picking off the most vulnerable women. But we didn’t understand the process by which the right wing would attempt to use women against each other.

Of course the most successful method the right wing has used to prevent abortions is simply to prevent a facility in one’s local community. It’s much less dramatic than harassing women at the clinic’s doors or firebombing a clinic out of existence, or kidnapping the doctor, but it is more efficient. In some cases, that could happen quietly, in other cases, they tried to pass local ordinances. But the right-wing’s objective is to reverse the political climate. In addition to the outright terrorism, the right wing utilizes a variety of harassing techniques: maintaining a gauntlet of picketers in front of the clinic’s entranceway, picketing the homes of abortion clinic employees, tracing clinic patients through their license plates and intimidating them on the phone. Joseph Scheidler, head of Chicago’s Pro-Life Action League has written a how-to book, “Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion.”

The right wing’s latest technique is to set up bogus clinics. Over 3,000 are in operation, often situated near to a clinic, and taking a similar sounding, or neutral, name. A 93-page booklet, written by Robert Pearson, “How to Start and Operate Your Own Pro-Life Outreach Crisis Pregnancy Center,” is the standard manual. Some women, seeking abortion, have been forced to watch anti-abortion films while waiting for the results of their pregnancy test. A few have initiated false advertising lawsuits, as a way of reversing this latest ploy.

The Poor Woman As Politically Vulnerable

In fact, the right has been most successful where it has targeted groups of women–women on welfare, teenagers–who are politically or economically vulnerable. Its major legislative success was Congress’ passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1975. This act denied federal funds for women on welfare who needed abortions.

In response, new pro-choice coalitions were formed. Teach-ins were held on January 22nd, the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, along with demonstrations against the Hyde Amendment, which had to be renewed each year. The largest, most militant demonstration occured in the fall of 1976, where anti-abortion Secretary of Health Richard Califano spoke at the New York University Law School and 3,000 picketers encircled the block-long building.

Part of the failure of the feminist movement to mount a successful campaign is related to the political atmosphere in 1975-6. The economic crisis and the ear round of concessions had a dampening effect. But another part is related to the fact that the vibrant feminist organizations that had flourished in the early 1970s disbanded.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) passed the 50,000 membership mark, but it was primarily focused on winning passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It was the only national organization capable of mounting a campaign to defeat the Hyde Amendment, but its leadership didn’t grasp the importance of this battle. In fact, the only way the ERA could have been won once the counterattack was mounted would have been through mobilizing a political campaign in defense of women’s rights.

In fact, some NOW leaders responded by denying connection between the right to abortion and other Iegal rights. For instance, in St. Louis NOW leaders marched jointly with anti-abortion forces to demonstrate that ERA and abortion were “separate” issues. Ellie Smeal as president of NOW, invited anti-abortion forces to a meeting with feminists to discuss how they might jointly work together on common issues such as birth control. The right-wing came and used the event as a device to promote their politics.

The kind of grass roots politics that the feminist movement is built on can’t challenge the status quo by playing the “old boy” network as the right-wing organizations can. It must do so by inspiring people with a vision of a more humane, egalitarian society. It must begin to speak to the ambivalences women feel about the narrow range of choice in our lives, and to situate our current struggle within the framework of enlarging on those choices.

As difficult as that would have been to do in 1975-76 period, the fact that new pro-choice coalitions merged, that demonstrations and picket lines were held, and that teach ins were instituted on January 22nd,anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, indicates a sizeable grouping within the feminist movement understood the political problem facing women, and tried to respond. We were not able to stop the Hyde Amendment, but at least we were able to blunt the capacity of the right wing to carry out their offensive against poor women.

In attacking poor women, the right wing was able to play on popular hostility toward welfare and toward women on welfare in particular. From the point of view of those who resent paying taxes for welfare, it is more “rational” to subsidize abortions than to pay for the rearing of children. Indeed, organizations like Planned Parenthood have used this argument in trying to maintain state funding for abortion. But such racist arguments make all the more difficult alliances between the pro­choice movement and those organizations rooted in Third World communities.

Clearly something more is at work here that an appeal to people’s pocketbooks. Underlying the debate over the Hyde Amendment and whether women on welfare have the same rights as other women to control their body is the ambivalence society has towards women’s sexuality. Since women on welfare aren’t supposed to be living with a man, who would otherwise be “supporting” them, then they have no right to a sexual life. And despite the fact that the majority of women on welfare are white women, the image of the “welfare” woman is that of a Black woman. So here racist stereotypes reinforce society’s notions of a woman’s role.

Accordingly, welfare women who do have a sex life, and get pregnant, should be punished by having to bear the child. Vindictive, yes, but not entirely irrational. By subsidizing poor women’s abortions, the state is subsidizing the separation of sexuality and procreation. This separation is fundamental not only to free women from economic dependence on men, but to give women control over our sexual lives. This is still frightening to a society in which a woman’s identity is based on her role as a nurturer.

Although the vast majority does not want abortion to be illegal again, most support a woman’s right to an abortion conditionally. While more than 80% of those polled will agree that abortion should be legal in the case of pregnancy from rape or incest, only 50% support legal abortion in the case of a woman who decides she cannot afford more children, 45 % if the woman decides she doesn’t want any more children, and only 39% agree that it should be legal if a woman wants an abortion for any reason. Thus, abortion becomes more acceptable to the extent it is rationalized in terms of women’s traditional gender role (i.e., one’s forced into having sex; the pregnancy would harm already existing children, etc.)

The first woman to die from an illegal abortion after the passage of this law was Rosie Jimenez. A mother on welfare who had gotten into college, she died of a massive infection just before her daughter’s second birthday. What is strange is that the Department of Health, Education & Welfare had anticipated 125-250 deaths a year without federal funding for abortion. They predicated another 25,000 hospitalizations due to complications. Passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1975 cut off women on Medicaid from having the right to federal medical care for abortion except under certain limited circumstances. Yet no one has reported this phenomenon. Why didn’t it happen?

Even though only a dozen states still provide state funding for women on welfare, this crucial funding in major metropolitan areas has enabled poor women to continue to have access to abortion. The feminist health movement has attempted to aid poor women, and many clinics have a sliding scale fee. Despite the federal ruling, and continued challenges to state funding, to a great extent poor women have been able to find ways to obtain the abortions they need. Yet each attack on state funding, if successful, will drive abortions to the back-alleys once again. And this will endanger women’s lives.

Teenagers: Protection Through Ignorance?

Claiming to be “protecting” teenagers, the right wing has attempted to outlaw sex, birth control and abortion for the young. This has taken the form of attempting to pass legislation requiring parental consent forms for unmarried women under eighteen. They manipulate society’s contradictory attitudes towards teenagers as a way of promoting their agenda.

In their paternalism the right wing reveals their callousness toward the teenager, who faces the reality of discrimination, low wages and high rates of unemployment. Unfortunately, many liberals are sucked into this campaign. Paternalistic attitudes are a way society hides behind its failure to provide appropriate sex education and adequate support to the young. Instead of protecting the young by providing adequate information, “protection” is defined as keeping them in ignorance. Teenagers must be the only group in society for whom being in a state of ignorance is perceived as a form of protecting them. The right wing reveals its agenda through its determination to get rid of those birth control clinics and sex education programs that have been set up in high schools.

Most studies indicate that teenagers begin their sexual life without any form of birth control. The shame that keeps them from admitting that they are sexual beings prevents them from securing birth control information and devices for nearly a year after their first sexual encounter. As a result, fully one-third of all women obtaining abortions are nineteen or under. The attempt to outlaw abortion for teenagers after preventing them from receiving an adequate sex education would have a substantial impact on young women.

Despite the fact that our society is one in which sexuality is omnipresent–blatantly so in its popular culture–sexuality is still shrouded in rules that are impossible to follow. No one is more entrapped in this m confusion that the young. To play on that confusion, to a make the young “pay for their mistakes” if they err, and to attempt to deal with the question of sexuality by ignoring and driving it underground, the right wing has the capacity to inflict tremendous damage on society–if we fall prey.

If anyone needed proof that to take on the right, feminists have to organize women in militant, visible, mass actions in support of women’s right to abortion, the March for Women’s Lives supplied it. Like the speak outs, demonstrations not only affirm the breadth of support among women for abortion rights, they undermine the right’s major strength–its appeal to guilt and fear.

Over the past fifteen years more women poured into the workforce. This reality has seriously challenged the traditional view of the male-breadwinner family. We are living a revolution in gender roles in the context of a profound economic crisis. Women win the right to compete, just as the economic struggle to survive becomes most intense. Women look to socialize their traditional burden of care for children, just as the welfare state must cut back on services in order to protect private profits. Just as women challenge their exclusive assignment to nurturance within the family, the family appears to be a necessary haven–the only hope for respite from a vicious and individualistic struggle to survive.

In this situation, it is inevitable that women do feel torn by conflicting feelings as we begin to acknowledge our sexuality and challenge the notion that we alone should be nurturers. We find it difficult to answer the charges the right hurls at us–we’re murderers, we’re selfish–because we still have in our mind’s eye the image of the selfless, sacrificing mother.

The simple fact of women standing up together to reject this image and to demand that our society find another way to nurture and care for children–indeed, for everyone–undercuts the guilt and fear the right preys upon. That is why the crowd in Washington, D.C. March 9th rose when NOW President Ellie Smeal proclaimed: “The women’s movement is on the move. We are not yesterday, we are tomorrow.”

May-June 1986, ATC 3

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