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It's Not Just Abortion, Stupid: Progressives and Abortion

by Carole Joffe
Many progressives are now undergoing a reevaluation of the “costs” of a commitment to abortion rights. Abortion can best be defended if it is framed as one element of a larger platform of sexual and reproductive rights and services. There exists now a powerful opening to expose the hypocrisy of “family values” conservatives who seek to withhold from working Americans virtually all that they need—contraception, meaningful sex education, health care for the uninsured, living wages, affordable childcare, as well as abortion care—to raise healthy families. This piece is reprinted from the Winter 2005 issue of Dissent.

Progressive men and women have found it extremely difficult to address issues of reproductive and sexual behavior—abortion, above all. Reproductive politics, in left circles, is not just about fighting the antiabortion movement or right-wing sexual conservatives for the hearts and minds of “Middle America,” though there is plenty of that. Mirroring in some ways other gender struggles after the emergence of second wave feminism, there is a long history of reproductive rights activists striving to make such issues legitimate on the left. (Indeed, such struggles go back to the early twentieth century, when Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger fought a mostly losing battle to persuade their left-wing contemporaries to take seriously the campaign for legalizing birth control). And within the contemporary reproductive freedom movement itself—composed as it is of large mass membership organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority, and numerous smaller grassroots groups, only some of which identify as “progressive”—there is hardly unanimity as to how best frame positions on abortion.

Abortion as Albatross?

With some exceptions, the discomfort with abortion on the left has not been focused on the morality of the procedure, but rather on the political costs of an association with the issue. From the sixties to the present, many leftists have feared that embracing abortion too strongly would alienate potential allies who would be otherwise sympathetic to the progressive agenda on economic grounds.

And these fears have not been unfounded. Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, a very powerful antiabortion movement began to mobilize, which was a significant factor in the rise of the New Right, precursor to today’s Christian Right. It is opposed not only to abortion, but also to a host of related positions associated with the reproductive freedom movement. Gay rights, comprehensive sex education (that is, not “abstinence only”), teenagers’ access to abortion and contraception without parental notification or consent, public funding of family planning domestically and internationally: all these soon became key issues for the conservative movement. The so-called “Reagan Democrats”— white workers who switched their allegiance to the Republican Party in part because of “values” issues such as abortion—were just the first indication of abortion’s strong capacity to realign American politics.

In the recent election campaign, abortion and gay marriage worked as wedge issues to drive away groups—including some African American pastors and their congregants, as well as unemployed workers—that would normally be drawn to the more progressive agenda of the Democrats. For most of the campaign, John Kerry and John Edwards barely mentioned their support of abortion, assuming that there was more to be lost than gained from reminding voters where they stood. (See the election postscript at the end of this article.)

To be sure, a much broader segment of American society than right-wing sexual conservatives is troubled by abortion. Although polls on abortion are notoriously inconsistent and confusing, with much depending on the wording of particular questions, perhaps the best summary is that a majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal, but their support is quite ambivalent. For example, there appears to be less than majority support for the main reason that women give for seeking abortions—to end an unwanted pregnancy. There is considerably higher support for abortions needed to save a woman’s life or health, for pregnancies that result from rape or incest, or for instances of fetal anomalies. But such cases actually represent only a small percentage of all U.S. abortions.

Many factors, of course, account for this ambivalence about abortion, including the longstanding opposition of the Catholic church and many Protestant churches, especially those connected with the fast-growing evangelical movement. Although initially much antiabortion discourse focused on the immorality and selfishness of women seeking abortions, a new and arguably more effective position was developed, beginning in the mid-1980s, with an explicit focus on the fetus. The release of the film The Silent Scream —purporting to show a second trimester abortion—made the case. Shortly afterward prenatal ultrasound became widely available throughout American society. Where once this procedure had been reserved for problem pregnancies or those occurring in “older” women, today, with no medical authorization, pregnant women can obtain ultrasounds in shopping malls.

The antiabortion strategy of posing “fetal rights” as equal to those of pregnant women intensified during the first years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Republican legislators worked relentlessly to establish the legal groundwork for an eventual recognition of “fetal personhood.” This is the logic behind bills as disparate as making fetuses (though not their mothers!) eligible for benefits under the Child Health Insurance Program and the Violence Against Unborn Victims Act, which makes it a double homicide if a pregnant woman is murdered. Similarly, Republican strategists have masterfully used the so-called “partial birth abortion” issue to suggest, misleadingly, that many abortions occur late in pregnancy and are performed by this particularly sensationalized procedure. (The reality is that nearly 90 percent of all abortions occur in the first trimester of pregnancy and less than 1 percent of all abortions are by “intact dilation and extraction,” the closest medical equivalent to the invented term “partial birth abortion.”)

Among activists within the reproductive rights community there is no consensus about how abortion should be understood. For some—perhaps the majority—abortions are typically spoken of as “sad but necessary.” But for others, connected to a more radical tradition within the movement, support for abortion is best captured by the slogan, “On demand, without apology.” Many abortion rights activists are increasingly dissatisfied with the euphemism of “choice”—posing, as it does, the notion of abortion as something that consumers can “choose,” rather than, as many feminists have argued, as a “right” of all women, whether they can afford this “choice” or not. Indeed, the failure of the reproductive rights community to defeat the Hyde amendment, the 1976 legislation that forbids the use of federal funds to pay for poor women’s abortions, has long been a major disappointment to many in the movement, especially minority women.

“Abortion should be safe, legal and rare”—the defense of abortion first articulated by Bill Clinton and since echoed by most Democratic politicians—receives a mixed reception among reproductive rights activists. On the one hand, this slogan accurately reflects the practice of nearly all abortion providing facilities, where patients are routinely counseled about birth control methods and often are given contraception devices to take with them when they leave the clinic. The discomfort with the slogan, on the other hand, is that it will inevitably add to the already considerable demonization of abortion, and of those who need it, and of the beleaguered health care workers who provide it.

To make matters more complicated, hovering always in the background are remnants of ideas of the eugenics movement, which are decidedly unwelcome to the progressive wing of the contemporary reproductive freedom movement. These ideas hearken back to earlier groups—“population controllers”—whose enthusiasm for reproductive policies was driven by fears of overpopulation and excessive “breeding” by people of color, rather than by any commitment to “women’s rights.” These eugenic ideas have made a comeback of sorts in the aftermath of the landmark welfare reform bill of 1996. That reshaping of welfare has put time limits on receipt of assistance, imposed “family caps” that restrict the number of children a particular welfare recipient can claim, and above all, reinforced the message that one should only have children that one can afford. Indeed, though abortion rates have recently declined for most women, the one exception to this is low-income black women, and this rise in abortion appears to be closely related to welfare reform. In today’s political climate, it has become almost as hard to defend the right of poor women on public assistance to have children as to defend the right of women in general to obtain abortions.

Given the historical baggage that abortion carries, progressives tend to avoid it whenever they can. Perhaps it’s from a fear of alienating allies. Perhaps it’s out of frustration that there is nothing new to say about this seemingly intractable struggle. Perhaps it is due to intimidation by the antiabortion movement or, as I suspect, simple discomfort with controversy. Whatever the reasons, the topic of abortion is often excluded from both political and scholarly gatherings, including those organized by academic feminists. It was not leftists who took the lead in organizing the huge abortion rights march in April 2004, but rather the mainstream abortion rights organizations.

Reproductive Rights as a Mosaic

The history of abortion and American political culture since 1973, then, is one in which opponents have been strikingly successful, not only in imposing massive restrictions on access to abortion, but in making the procedure so stigmatized and controversial that even progressives shy away from defending it. How could reproductive rights activists talk about abortion in ways that resonate with the general public and re-engage the left? In the preRoe era, the reproductive rights movement occupied the moral high ground because women by the thousands were maimed and dying from botched illegal abortions. To defend abortion today—for the simple reason that most women of reproductive age are sexually active and therefore sex needs to be separated from procreation—has proved extremely challenging. Twenty-five years ago, Ellen Willis offered an insight about the emotional power of the antiabortion movement that still seems true today:

a lot of people who intellectually abhor everything the antiabortionists stand for are emotionally intimidated by their argument. The right-to-lifers’ most dangerous weapon is...their ability to confuse and immobilize potential opponents by tapping the vast store of sexual guilt and anxiety that lies just below this society’s veneer of sexual liberalism. Patriarchal culture, with its deeply anti-sexual ideology, has existed for some five thousand years; the radical idea that people have the right to sexual freedom and happiness has been a significant social force for little more than a century.

Willis’s words suggest that the best way to support abortion may be to situate this support within a much broader progressive platform of sexual and reproductive rights. From a reproductive freedom standpoint, the past thirty-two years since Roe v. Wade have been doubly disastrous. We have seen not only a massive weakening of Roe itself—which hangs by a thread legally and which is supported by a bare majority of Americans, but, equally as unfortunate, the necessity to play defense on abortion, which has derailed the promising agenda of a much more expansive and liberatory movement. One of the earliest abortion rights groups, in fact, was CARASA—Committee for Abortion Rights and against Sterilization Abuse—a response to the practice (in some states in the 1960s and 1970s) of physicians’ sterilizing poor, often non-English speaking women without their knowledge.

When NOW, the first mass organization to emerge from second wave feminism, first organized in 1967, support for child care and maternity leaves were as prominent in its “Women’s Bill of Rights” as was reproductive freedom. Similarly, from the early 1970s to this day, one can find in the remaining freestanding women’s health clinics—perhaps the single most enduring accomplishment of second wave feminism (and where, along with Planned Parenthood clinics, most abortions in this country still take place) —abortion services as well as contraception, and sometimes prenatal care as well. Staff members in these clinics typically endorse (and often assist in) adoption, validate the decision of intentional childlessness, make referrals for infertility treatment, and affirm homosexual and bisexual clients in their sexual identities.

In short, the logic of seeing abortion as just one part of the mosaic of reproductive and sexual rights and services is not simply that it is persuasive to others. It is also the most authentic position of the reproductive freedom movement itself. One of the most eloquent expressions of this connection between abortion and other reproductive events was made by Rachel Atkins, a physician assistant and abortion provider, and for many years the director of the Vermont Women’s Health Center (and now vice president of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England). In a frequently quoted statement, she noted, “There aren’t two different kinds of women sitting in our waiting room—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times in their lives.”

One of the greatest costs for the reproductive freedom movement of not locating its support for abortion in a larger context is the void it leaves for opponents to fill. For example, Feminists for Life, an antiabortion group, has recently conducted a cross-country college tour, in which its speakers called for child care for student parents and contrasted its position to that of “prochoicers” who “only” advocate abortion. The audiences for these talks, the overwhelming majority of whom were born well after the 1960s and 1970s, are presumably oblivious to the long tradition of support for childcare within progressive feminism.

The March on Washington

The huge March for Women’s Lives, in Washington, D.C., in April 2004, was one of the few recent bright spots in the otherwise grim story of the contemporary reproductive rights movement and reflected the broadened vision—the “mosaic”—mentioned above. Unofficial estimates put the march at more than one million participants, leading some to speculate that it was the largest political gathering ever in the United States. But the most encouraging number, in my view, was that an estimated quarter of the marchers were under twenty-five, thus defying the common stereotype that reproductive rights, and especially support for abortion, were solely the concern of the now graying generation of second wave feminists. Moreover, younger participants did not simply show up; they demanded a role in the leadership of the march. Though it had originally been planned to focus solely on abortion, the younger women’s organizations, including several representing women of color, argued successfully for a broadened agenda (and a change in the name from the original “March for Abortion Rights”). Eventually the march emerged with a strong global as well as domestic focus, with speakers and marching delegations concerned with broad “social justice” issues as well as reproductive rights. Groups at the march ranged from union activists to medical students wearing their white coats to three generations of family members. In eloquent protest of the Bush administration’s opposition to making emergency contraception more accessible (a move that would, in fact, prevent thousands of unwanted pregnancies and hence abortions), a group of gutsy and imaginative physicians stood at the side of the march route and wrote prescriptions for this drug on the spot.

At the march, one could clearly see that with an issue as complex as abortion, no single master frame will ever speak effectively to all potential supporters. Or, put differently, abortion rights will inevitably evoke different discourses from its diverse constituencies. Demonstrating at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, the day before the march, a group of women—mostly from the developing world—chanted, “Abortion is health care, health care is a human right!” A group of Latina immigrant women from Brooklyn who rose at dawn to come to the march told a New York Times reporter that they “didn’t really believe in abortion,” but they knew from experience in their home countries the suffering that occurs when the procedure is not safely available. Groups of younger women marched with signs identifying themselves as fighting for “reproductive justice”—thus aligning themselves with the larger social justice movement.

What does all this mean? Abortion can’t be defended by a single issue focus— as urgent as the defense of Roe needs to be. To reinvigorate itself and draw new support, from both progressives and others, the reproductive freedom movement must go back to its roots. The movement must reaffirm its willingness to fight for a full range of services that make it possible not only to prevent unwanted pregnancies but to enable women to have and raise the children they want. This means vigorous support not only of contraception, prenatal care, and child care services, but also of living-wage campaigns, occupational health issues, and of course, full health care coverage for all Americans.

But important as such efforts to put abortion in context are, reciting a litany of services will not in itself make the emotional connections needed if abortion is to become acceptable in this culture. To be sure, for those who truly think abortion is murder, no reframing will ever work. But for the majority of Americans who don’t agree with the concept of abstinence till marriage, and who do think procreation should be separate from sexuality, there is one overriding message from the reproductive freedom movement that needs to accompany any demands for a full range of reproductive services: it is that we trust women to make the right decisions about their own bodies.

Postscript: Election 2004

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election, the reproductive freedom community is in crisis mode. Within hours of Kerry’s concession speech, the issue of Supreme Court appointments took center stage (intensified by the illness and likely retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist). Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican with a long history of support for abortion rights, who is in line to become chair of the Judiciary Committee, instantly became embroiled in controversy, after he appeared to warn the re-elected president that anti-abortion nominees would face difficulty. He then backtracked in the face of a furious outcry by conservatives who demanded that he not be allowed his chairmanship. Whether Specter survives this challenge or not, there is no question that the Court will soon change, and reproductive freedom activists, like other progressives, are understandably terrified.

But it is not only the legal status of abortion that is now at risk because of this election. Virtually all components of the “mosaic” of reproductive rights and services that I have been discussing are also now less likely to be available to those who need them most. With another Bush administration, there is even less likelihood that Americans will have access to contraception, sex education that goes beyond abstinence, affordable child care, health care coverage for the uninsured, and a living wage. The list goes depressingly on. Ironically, the Bush administration’s policies will certainly result in more women having unplanned pregnancies—and they will therefore seek more abortions.

However, while politically the antiabortion movement is now stronger than ever, it is less clear what the American people actually were saying about abortion in this last election. “Moral values” is right now one of the leading explanations of why Bush won. But there remains confusion about what “moral values” actually meant to those who voted on that basis. Some observers, especially Republican spinners, have taken this to indicate a literal opposition to abortion and, particularly in this election, gay marriage. And there is no question that the gay marriage bans in the eleven states, which all passed, helped to mobilize the Republican social conservative base. Yet the same much-discussed Associated Press poll, which revealed that 22 percent of voters had “moral values” as their top priority, also showed that a surprising 55 percent of voters wanted abortion to remain legal in all or most circumstances. Polls taken during the election season consistently showed a very high degree of support for stem cell research. In California, the one place where this issue was on the ballot, it won decisively. We might reasonably understand this victory as revealing voters’ concern lest extremist ideology hold back scientific research, as well as their obvious interest in curing certain diseases.

Therefore, it is very important that those who support reproductive rights, including abortion, not misinterpret what the electorate actually said. I do not think there was one coherent abortion “message” in this election, other than that the Republicans did a far better job of energizing their base and getting their people to the polls. Already we are seeing the inevitable calls for Democrats to back off from the abortion issue, but we should resist these arguments. Rather, the policies that will come in the second Bush presidency make even clearer the logic and necessity of defending abortion as part of a larger agenda on reproduction, sexuality, and the capacity to raise healthy families.

Two little-noticed bright spots in the November 2 debacle were measures on raising the minimum wage, which voters passed by large margins in Florida and Nevada (both states that voted for Bush). These victories demonstrate the emergence of support for issues of economic justice by otherwise conservative voters; the voters in red states apparently “get it,” in our post–welfare reform society—that the working poor just can’t make ends meet, even if they work full time.

These successful minimum wage campaigns suggest what a powerful opening there is for the progressive wing of the reproductive freedom movement to expose the hypocrisy of a supposedly “family values” administration—which withholds from many Americans virtually everything they need to responsibly bear and raise children. Of course, it is not enough merely to denounce conservative policies. We must find new ways to articulate persuasively a progressive view of reproductive politics. This is not an easy task. But at this very difficult time, men and women on the left may find some comfort in the Chinese character for "crisis", which is made up of the symbols for opportunity as well as danger.

Reprinted with permission from Dissent

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