Pro-Choice Agendas After Webster

Marlene Fried

ON JULY 3, the Supreme Court gutted the constitutional protections for abortion with its decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. Ironically, the willingness of the Supreme Court to seriously curtail abortion access may have been the spark needed to prevent further erosion. The public has been galvanized. The same polls that were used before the Supreme Court decision to “prove” that most Americans favor restricting abortion rights are now described as a groundswell of pro-choice support.

Thousands of women, many of whom have never been active before, have become involved; the membership of groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), as well as of independent grassroots groups and coalitions, has soared. And money both from foundations and individuals is available for organizing.

This is the best opportunity there has been in years to build the kind of movement we have not had in the past—one that is broad-based in its membership, in its leadership and in its politics. We have the opportunity to build a movement that goes beyond reaffirmation of Roe vs. Wade, to demand both access to abortion and full reproductive rights. We have the opportunity to build a movement that is committed to a class- and race-conscious feminism. And we have the opportunity to stall the momentum of the anti-abortion movement.

Those of us who have been in the reproductive-rights tendency of the pro-choice movement have not seen these possibilities for a long time. As the world reconfigures around us we need to talk about how to translate and adapt our vision to the current political context. How can we turn these opportunities into realities? Jam writing this article in the spirit of engaging in a dialogue on questions that are key to setting the post-Webster political agenda.

This is clearly a time when abortion-rights organizations should direct all of their energies into building the movement and fighting the anti-abortionists. However, it is also a time when differences in politics will determine whether this energy is successfully channeled into the kind of movement I envision.

There already are disturbing trends. Many read the loss of Webster as a failure of those who care about abortion rights to be as single minded as their opponents. Vowing to correct this error, pro-choice activists are being encouraged to view abortion rights as the only basis on which to support candidates.

Single-issue politics is not new in the abortion struggle. It has in fact been the politics of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, major mainstream groups that dominate the pro-choice movement. What is different is the claim that Webster vindicates the single-issue approach of the anti-abortion movement. The threat that we could totally lose the constitutional right to abortion is being used to argue for single-issue, pro-choice politics.

Should this argument be any more compelling now than at other times? I don’t think so. My reading of the political losses we have suffered in this area is that abortion rights can neither be won nor preserved by themselves. For the most part, the struggle to defend abortion rights has been waged by a movement very different from that which won legal abortion in 1973.

Unlike the broad women’s liberation movement, the pro-choice movement of the late 1970s and 1980s has been a single-issue movement “Choice” has come to mean legal abortion. In the face of the challenges to abortion rights, the pro-choice movement has narrowed the abortion-rights agenda. Doing so, however, has narrowed the base of support and has alienated the very constituencies necessary to defend abortion rights.

An example of this is the 1986 Massachusetts campaign to defeat an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution. In that campaign the Choice Coalition refused to take even minimal steps to allow itself to become allied with the fight against the state’s policy that prohibits gay men and lesbians from becoming foster Parents. This happened despite the fact that lesbian activists have long been in the forefront of struggles to defend abortion rights and that many of those most active in opposing the foster-care policy were also active in the Choice Coalition.

Compounding the affront, the Choice Coalition gave Governor Dukakis, who had promulgated the foster-care policy, prominence in their campaign. The message was clear, lesbian and gay rights were to be sacrificed in the pursuit of abortion rights. This alienated gay and lesbian activists and dissuaded many from continued involvement in the Choice Coalition.

The pro-choice movement is more vulnerable when abortion is isolated from other issues. The anti-abortion movement has made links between abortion and sexual freedom, school prayer, crime, etc., allowing it to create links to other right-wing organizations. The right has clearly understood the power of making these connections. It is ironic that our side, seeming to ignore the connections, attempts to reduce reproductive choice to legal abortion.

The current political scene provides many opportunities for the pro-choice movement to link abortion to other reproductive-rights issues. The attack on abortion is part of a larger attack on sexual freedom. The effort to curtail abortion rights, like the effort to manipulate fears about AIDS, is both attempts to suppress sexual freedom.

The decision in the Webster case links defense of abortion rights to defense of public-health care and facilities and to the struggle for economic justice As in the 1981 McRae case, in which the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment, the court has made painfully obvious the point that poor women will bear the brunt of erosions in abortion rights.

In the past, however, the pro-choice movement has failed to connect the defense of abortion rights to the struggle to better the healthcare and economic conditions of poor women and women of color Is it possible now to orient the politics of the pro-choice movement in this direction? I think so.

The pro-choice message from the mainstream groups has become broader, emphasizing funding and access issues beyond legal abortion itself. Left feminist reproductive-rights activists should now make our priority expanding the notion of reproductive rights and focusing the debate on the needs of all women.

I believe that the activists who are flocking to the movement are receptive to these politics. The Webster decision, the ongoing attacks on the clinics by “Operation Rescue” and the face-to-face confrontations with the anti-abortion movements at the clinics has radicalized the rank and file of the pro-choice movement This has both tactical and ideological implications.

Many of those who have been participating in ongoing clinic defense are discouraged by having to rely on the “legitimate authorities” to protect abortion rights. The prominence of the police, while inevitable when the anti-choice tactics are ones of civil disobedience, is for us especially problematic. When abortion-rights counterdemonstrators cheer the police, the ambiguity of our position becomes painfully clear. When clinics try to get injunctions against demonstrators to severely constrain their protest and attempt to use the RICO law to impose huge fines on protestors, the degree of complicity with the status quo is troublesome.

We want to stop the anti-abortion movement, but using the very tactics that are so often used against progressive movements makes us uneasy about the way the battle has been shaped. Counting on the police to keep the clinics open, counting on the courts to preserve abortion rights, counting on the medical establishment to provide abortion services are all seen as complicity with an oppressive system—a system that should be challenged, not relied upon.

The abortion-rights movement is coming together in an effort to refocus the debate so that women’s lives become the central issue. In doing so, more radical demands are emerging Women are calling not only for the right to choose among existing options but are questioning why they lack the power to create the options.

There is a reawakening of interest in women-controlled health care and abortion. There is a call for women to control the development and distribution of abortifacient drugs like RU 486. Women are saying they will take on the task of keeping the clinics open regardless of the legal status of abortion. Millions of women seem prepared not only to have abortions even if abortion is criminalized but to say publicly that they would do so.

Civil disobedience and other forms of direct action are being widely discussed. The refusal to be silenced and to allow abortion to go underground in the way that it was pre-Roe is striking. The women’s movement has permanently changed the consciousness of many women. Young women feel entitled to abortion rights, birth control, equality in employment and other facets of their lives. And now they seem prepared to fight to secure these riots.

This is a time for our movement to be aggressive. Unfortunately, fear of further losses is causing some of the mainstream pro-choice groups to continue the defensive posture that has characterized the pro-choice movement since Roe vs. Wade. This argument, like that for single-issue politics, claims that if we fail to compromise, we will lose everything. The immediate political implications of this are already being felt within the movement.

In many states, even prior to anti-abortion offensives, pro-choice organizations and individuals are proposing legislation to “safeguard” abortion rights in the absence of federal constitutional protections. In Massachusetts, for instance, the Coalition for Choice, comprising Planned Parenthood, League of Women Voters, Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Mass ChoiceJNA1AL and NOW, are pursuing an amendment that protects a woman’s choice only until the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. The Coalition chose to pursue this option over legislation that would codify unrestricted abortion rights.

Those who support this strategy justify the 24-week restriction by arguing: 1) We must compromise our demands so the “soft supporters” of abortion rights—those who support abortion under some circumstances—will join with those who support a woman’s right to decide under all circumstances; 2) There are so few late abortions that the restriction is largely symbolic; 3) The anti-abortion movement often targets late abortions in its rhetoric and graphics, and we can defuse their arguments 4) The question of viability is dominating the public debate, arising not just in the abortion arena, but in the area of reproductive technologies (a Tennessee judge, for instance, has just ruled in favor of a woman suing for custody of frozen embryos on the grounds that these “babies” had a right to life); and, 5) Legal experts and professional pollsters say this is the only “winnable” referendum.

While I understand the urgency individuals and groups feel about the need to protect some ground, this is a dangerous strategy. It trades away the most basic aspect of abortion rights: a woman’s right to decide, at any point in pregnancy, for any reason. This strategy legitimizes the view that there are morally acceptable and morally unacceptable abortions and that those decisions are best made by someone other than the pregnant women.

Feminists need instead to be arguing for the right of every woman to make her own decision and to defend her decision-making as the best she can do given the conditions of her life. Anything less than this puts every abortion up for grabs.

Further, this strategy concedes the turf to the anti-abortionists by affirming that the fetus must be the focus of legislative and constitutional protection. For years, the abortion-rights movement has been trying to reframe the political debate so that the lives of women become prominent. As I argue above, this is a moment when the movement is actually coalescing around this view. We cannot afford to pull back now.

It is a strategy that adversely affects the lives of women right now. Those who seek late abortions are usually women in desperate circumstances, living on the margins with few protections and many obstacles in their lives—young women, poor women, physically or mentally-ill women. Anti-abortionists have consistently pursued policies that harm the most vulnerable women. The abortion-rights movement must not do the same. We need to be fighting for the rights of all women, refusing to make any into bargaining chips.

It is a strategy that ignores, or perhaps has no faith in, political education and organizing. It seems clear that while there is widespread support for abortion rights, there is not adequate support for a women’s right to abortion under all circumstance& Building support for this is one of our political tasks. The compromise described above undermines our ability to do so.

On this and other political and strategic questions, the issue of leadership is a crucial one. The mainstream groups are somewhat divided on all of these points. NOW is emerging to the left of the other groups on a range of issues from the importance of mass mobilizations to broadening the agenda.

However, the membership and leadership of NOW and the other mainstream groups remain predominantly white and middle class. This is true as well of more radical grassroots reproductive-rights groups and left groups active on the issue. It remains true that the changes in abortion access will most seriously affect low-income women, a disproportionate number of whom are women of color. As we plan to build the reproductive-rights movement again, we should look to these women for leadership.

Last April, a group of about 150 grassroots activists from all over the country came to a conference in Washington D.C., called, “The Defense of Roe.” This gathering was unique in that the activists were primarily women of color. The messages from that meeting were significant and clear women of color are participating in the struggle for reproductive rights; women of color are prepared to take the leadership in the struggle for abortion rights so long as that struggle is not separated from other aspects of reproductive freedom.

The struggle is for women’s survival in all of its breadth. If the mainstream, primarily white, pro-choice movement cannot accept this, it will be unsuccessful in building itself into a strong, national movement

While it may be tempting to move at once to rebuild national left-feminist networks, which were dominated by white women, these efforts will falter if they do not insure women of color equal partnership in the movement. Both pro-choice organizations and groups with a broader perspective on abortion rights must begin to share power with women of color who come to the issue with a full reproductive-rights agenda.

This means having a wider vision of women’s reproductive, social and economic needs; reflecting that vision in policies and practices; and sharing financial and organizational resources. We must also challenge our assumptions about who is and can be active around reproductive rights. For white women, this implies challenging a self-image as “the leaders” in the movement. If we don’t pursue a broader vision and agenda, the abortion-rights movement will continue to be vulnerable to divisions based on race and class—the current movement does not speak for all women.

Despite these problematic areas of the abortion-rights struggle, this as an exciting time for our movement. Grassroots activists, inspired by emergent radical tendencies, can take the opportunity to refocus the struggle on women’s lives and needs; to extend abortion rights to the right of all women to make uncoerced reproductive decisions. This will strengthen the abortion-rights movement and create a more unified base for a more powerful women’s movement.

November-December 1989, ATC 23

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