The Rebel Girl: Supremes in the Bush

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Catherine Sameh

YES, WE’RE WORRIED: With George W. Bush in the White House and a reactionary-activist Supreme Court, pro-choice activists are deeply alarmed.

Bush has signed eighteen anti-reproductive rights provisions as governor of Texas, and been quoted as saying “I will do everything in my power to restrict abortions.”

Some fear the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling might be completely overturned if Bush appoints antichoice Supreme Court justices, while many are certain it is sure to take at least a Supreme beating. I’m not indifferent to those fears; the combination of a Bush administration and more rightward-turning Court could bode very poorly for women’s reproductive freedom.

But let these fears remind us just how precarious women’s reproductive freedoms are today, after eight years of Democratic administration and nearly thirty years of erosions overseen by Democratic and Republican presidencies.

The pieces of the puzzle we call legalized abortion have fit together in different ways, with the Supreme Court intervening both for and against access:

1976 — Under the Carter administration the Hyde Amendment is passed, prohibiting the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion.

1983 — Under the Reagan administration, in Akron Center for Reproductive Health v. City of Akron, the Court invalidates a number of restrictions on abortion.

1986 — Under the Reagan administration, in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Pennsylvania, the Justice Department submits a supplementary brief in the case to argue for overruling >Roe v. Wade. The Court holds all the information-dispensing requirements to be unconstitutional, ruling that they seem to be overt attempts to discourage abortion.

1989 — Under the Bush Sr. administration, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Court upholds various provisions of a Missouri law restricting abortion. Several justices indicate a willingness to reconsider Roe and to consider further restrictions.

It’s Up to Us

While Bill Clinton did a reasonable job protecting a vulnerable Roe v. Wade, he was also the mean-spirited author of a welfare “reform” that cut off federal aid — including monies for health and child care — for poor women. Their reproductive freedom, tentative since the Hyde Amendment, is now hardly meaningful.

Like presidents, the Supreme Court has always responded to movements on the ground, and it always will. The women’s movement of the 1970s demanded full reproductive freedom for all women. What we got was Roe v. Wade, resting on the important — but limited — right to privacy between a woman and her physician.

Roe has always been vulnerable to attack from the right wing, who organized with unmatched vigor and violence throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Their activism mobilized mainstream anxiety about abortion, forcing Democratic and Republican administrations to rethink and reconfigure legalized abortion to its uncertain position today.

Be that the lesson for us: Whatever the puzzle looks like in the next four years, it will be our own reignited and radicalized reproductive freedom and justice movement for all women that forms the most crucial and indispensable piece.

ATC 90, January-April 2001