Lessons from a Defeat

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Linda Manning Myatt

IN THE SIXTEEN years following the Supreme Court’s decision in the Roe v. Wade case, the war between the forces for and against women’s reproductive rights has continued.

The anti-choice forces have slowly regained some of the ground that they lost January 22, 1973. While they have been barred by Roe v. Wade from enacting laws that would ban abortions outright, the anti-choice groups have succeeded in getting Congress to cut off Medicaid funds for abortions, thereby limiting poor women’s access to abortion.

Following the withdrawal of federal Medicaid funds for abortion, many states enacted laws withdrawing state funds. By the beginning of 1988 only fourteen states permitted the use of state funds.

Three referenda dealing with state funding for abortion were on the November 1988 ballot-and all three resulted in defeats for pro-choice forces. In Colorado the pro-choice forces were unable to reverse the results of a previous referendum outlawing state funding. In Arkansas a referendum banning state-funded abortion for poor women passed, even though the state had never allocated any money.

And in Michigan, sixty percent of the voters passed a referendum ending the state’s funding of abortions — thereby reducing the number of states that allocate money for poor women’s abortions to thirteen.

This referendum followed a long struggle. Through two gubernatorial administrations — those of the incumbent Democrat James Blanchard and the previous governor Republican William Milliken — the state legislature has repeatedly approved laws banning payment for abortions.

These laws were sometimes passed alone and sometimes tacked onto other ills. On nearly twenty separate occasions they were sent to the governor’s office and vetoed. Anti-choice members of the legislature would attempt to override the veto, always failing to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority by a very narrow margin.

In 1987, Michigan Right to Life developed a new approach. They collected signatures to place an initiative forbidding the use of funds for abortions for women before the state legislature. A bill introduced in this manner requires only a simple majority to pass and cannot be altered by either branch of the legislature or vetoed by the governor. The initiative was introduced and passed, but its implementation blocked by a court order. After the initiative was passed, the Michigan Coalition for Abortion Rights began circulating petitions to have the issue placed on the ballot. They succeeded in obtaining 100,000 signatures, but in November 1988 Michigan voters elected to ban funding for poor women except under life-threatening conditions.

Weak Strategy and Organization

The pro-choice forces faced an uphill battle from the start. While Right to Life has had an ongoing organization for a long time — along with funds, cadre and offices — a coalition had to be formed to defend poor women’s right to choose. Early on, pro-choice petitions seemed unobtainable.

When the pro-choice petitions did become available, they were circulated but no attempt was made to build any kind of popular movement around the issue. This was a serious error, because several polls showed overwhelmingly that people felt that women should have the right to choose to have abortions under some circumstances.

The pro-choice coalition had breadth in terms of established women’s organizations and trade-union participation. But it did not have a strategy of carrying out either an educational campaign or of utilizing a grass-roots approach. The coalition believed it had to fight the right-wing arguments with “practical” responses, such as pointing out that poor women who were victims of rape or incest would be unable to obtain abortions under the new law. Right to Life responded that this was a statistically insignificant number.

Without a grass-roots campaign and a vision of why women need to have reproductive choice, the coalition debated the right wing with whatever pragmatic argument it felt could “win.” Its television commercials emphasized that when poor women have abortions, the state saves money that would otherwise have been spent on social services for children. But this is a reactionary argument, one that reinforces the stereotype that poor women (read Black) “breed” children like rabbits and that their children are somehow of less value.

The election apparently showed that abortion, as a medical procedure, is viewed as a free-market right, like eating caviar. If you want it and can pay for it, then you can have it. But who would suggest state funding for that right!

In this case, arguing from “free market” principles is particularly inadequate, inasmuch as those women who disproportionately need access to abortions are least able to finance them. In fact, one-third of abortions performed in the state have been for women on Medicaid.

In the month or two prior to the election, you could hardly turn on the television without seeing an ad for or against Proposal A. And it’s true that Right to Life focused heavily on the economic arguments.

In one of the more commonly used Right to Life commercials, a group of affluent-looking people sat around a table discussing the proposal. The concluding statement in the ad, delivered by one of the round-table participants, was “I don’t know how I feel about abortions, but I sure don’t want my tax money going to pay for them.”

Looking back at the campaign, it is not surprising that Right to Life won. One of the most serious problems facing the pro-choice coalition was that nobody really wants abortions. What is needed is the right for women to choose to have abortions when they decide they need them. This just does not have the emotional and moral appeal of “saving babies from murder,” the terms in which Right to Life debates the issue.

On the other hand, given that most people in Michigan support a woman’s right to abortion under a number of circumstances, the fact that the pro-choice coalition was not able to turn that “soft” support into a vote to uphold the state’s responsibility to fund abortion as a medical procedure like any other represents a big defeat.

While the passage of Proposal A was a serious defeat, the war is not over. A number of clinics have announced plans to subsidize abortions for the poor. Methods of attacking the law through the courts are being considered by the American Civil Liberties Union. It is still possible to organize a popular movement around this issue as Right to Life prepares to move against funding of abortion under medical insurance coverage for state employees.

Certainly, those in other states engaged in similar struggles can learn something by analyzing the events that occurred in Michigan.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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