Four days after his second inauguration, George Bush addressed an anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., by phone. "The America of our dreams, where every child is welcomed in law, in life, and protected in law, may be some ways away, but even from the far side of the river . . . we can see its glimmerings," he told the crowd. "I ask that God bless you for your dedication."
Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, went even further. "The end of abortion on demand has started," he said to the tens of thousands of people who attended the rally. Interviewed by an anti-abortion group at the event, he also said, "This is a pro-life country."
If Bush and Brownback and the anti-abortion movement have their way, it will be, even though the majority of Americans support choice.
But the views of the public are not dominating the debate in Washington and in statehouses around the country. The views of the anti-abortion zealots are.
Even as many pro-choice people have been worrying about the potential calamity that awaits in the Supreme Court, the anti-abortion forces have been busy gaining ground elsewhere. The Bush Administration has promoted anti-abortion policies both internationally and domestically. Congress has more fanatical members than ever, none more so than newly elected Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, who advocates the death penalty for doctors who provide abortions. And the action in the states is overwhelmingly hostile.
As a result, a woman in America today has far less freedom to have an abortion than a woman in America the day after Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973. And for poor women, who are disproportionately of color, that freedom is hanging by a thread.
When Bush submitted his $2.57 trillion budget, he once again failed to provide a single penny to the United Nations Population Fund, which provides more assistance to women in the Third World than any other group.
"The Administration is implementing a stealth campaign to limit women's health programs around the world because they include reproductive health," says Anika Rahman, president of the U.S. Committee for the U.N. Population Fund. "Women's health programs, especially those that provide women with voluntary family planning services, elevate the status of women in their societies, and lead to economic development."
Rahman's group noted that Congress had allocated $34 million this year for the fund, which "could prevent the deaths of 4,700 women who die during childbirth from preventable causes and 77,000 infants and young children who die because their mothers aren't healthy enough to breast feed." And the irony is that these funds could also "prevent two million unplanned and unwanted pregnancies that result in 800,000 abortions annually." But Bush continues to refuse to release the money.
In addition, Bush is maintaining the "global gag rule," which denies overseas family planning organizations any U.S. aid if they even provide abortion counseling or referrals. "The global gag rule therefore forces a cruel choice: In starkest terms, foreign NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) can either choose to accept USAID funds for provision of essential health services--but with restrictions which may jeopardize the health of many patients--or the NGOs can choose to reject the policy and lose vital U.S. support," says the Global Gag Rule Impact Project, run by pro-choice groups. "In a number of countries, established referral networks of providers are collapsing as leading family planning NGOs downsize and struggle to cope with budget cuts and rapidly declining stocks of contraceptive supplies."
This global gag rule is not making abortions rarer. It's just making them more dangerous. "Of the forty-six million abortions that occur each year, roughly twenty million are performed under unsafe conditions," according to Planned Parenthood. "Each year, an estimated 80,000 women die from complications of unsafe abortions." According to the World Health Organization, 95 percent of unsafe abortions take place in the Third World.
In domestic policy, Bush and the Republicans are picking up where they left off in November, when they rammed through a law that allows for-profit hospitals, HMOs, and other health care companies receiving federal funds to bar their physicians from even discussing abortion with their patients. And it penalizes states or local governments that would require these health care companies to offer abortions, counseling, or referrals.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said that one of his top ten legislative priorities is the "Child Custody Protection Act." It would prohibit anyone except a parent from transporting a minor across state lines for an abortion unless the minor had fulfilled whatever parental notification law may be in effect in her state. More than thirty states have such laws. The penalty for violating this law is up to a year in prison. The only exception is "if the abortion was necessary to save the life of the minor because her life was endangered by a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness." Anti-abortion groups believe they can pass this into law this year.
Then there is the "Federal Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act." Introduced by Brownback and Representative Chris Smith, Republican of New Jersey, this bill would require abortion providers to tell any woman seeking an abortion past the twentieth week that the fetus would be experiencing pain during the abortion. The bill even provides the actual wording that the provider must deliver verbally. "The Congress of the United States has determined that at this stage of development, an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain," it states. "Congress finds that there is substantial evidence that the process of being killed in an abortion will cause the unborn child pain." And it also requires the provider to tell the woman that she has "the option of choosing to have anesthesia or other pain-reducing drug or drugs administered directly to the pain-capable unborn child." The script adds: "In some cases, there may be some additional risk to you associated with administering such a drug."
More inventive is the "Informed Choice Act," introduced by Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida. It would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to give grants for ultrasound equipment to nonprofit community-based pregnancy help medical clinics. In exchange for receiving the grant, the clinic would have to show "the visual image of the fetus" to the pregnant woman and provide her with "information on abortion and alternatives to abortion such as childbirth and adoption and information concerning public and private agencies that will assist in those alternatives."
Meanwhile, as Republicans are thinking of ever-more ingenious ways to restrict the right to an abortion, Bush himself is cutting back on Medicaid funds so that facilities which treat the poor have a harder time doing so. And Bush's answer to unwanted pregnancies is simply more money for abstinence only. He is advocating such a move even though some federally funded abstinence-only programs have spread ridiculous information, such as that touching a person's genitals "can result in pregnancy," as a report by Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, revealed.
The anti-abortion campaigns at the state level are galloping along, even in places you might not expect, like Michigan, which went to John Kerry and has a pro-choice governor, Jennifer Granholm. Michigan got an F on a recent report card made out by NARAL Pro-Choice America. The state ranked forty-fifth, according to the group.
One reason for Michigan's slide is that the state adopted a law last year that defines a fetus as a "legally born person" when any part of the fetus is outside the woman's body and shows signs of life. Ostensibly designed to outlaw so-called partial birth abortions, the law, which is slated to take effect at the end of March, does not stop there.
"This radical law goes far beyond any other legislation in the country, threatening women's ability to obtain even a first-trimester abortion and, in some instances, preventing doctors from treating miscarriages," said the Reverend Mark Pawlowski, CEO of Planned Parenthood of South Central Michigan. Planned Parenthood, along with the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights, is suing in federal court to try to stop the law.
According to those groups, "a doctor would be unable to provide a woman with an abortion even if she suffers from diabetes or cardiac ailments and needs an abortion to protect her health."
The Michigan anti-abortion legislators aren't satisfied yet. "One bill they've put in is to allow for a federal tax deduction for a still-born birth," says Shelli Weisberg, a lobbyist for the Michigan ACLU. "Everything they do now is a movement to give personhood to a fetus. They come up with amazing things."
State legislatures considered more than 500 anti-choice bills in 2004, according to the National Abortion Federation. These proposed restrictions included abortion bans, parental notifications, anti-abortion counseling, waiting periods, and the imposition of burdensome regulations on abortion clinics, such as specifications for the widths of doorways.
Mississippi is one of the more difficult places to get an abortion. It is the only state whose Democratic Party platform opposes a woman's right to choose. Only one abortion clinic serves the entire state. And the state legislature has placed a slew of restrictions on women seeking abortions.
Mississippi is one of two states that require the consent of both parents before a minor can get an abortion. And it joins Texas in demanding that women be told that having an abortion increases the threat of breast cancer, even though the National Cancer Institute does not support that claim.
Mississippi enacted a law in 2004 that requires abortions after the first trimester be performed in a hospital. The law effectively bans second trimester abortions, as no hospitals in the state perform the procedure after sixteen weeks. Litigation is so far blocking the enforcement of this law. (Nationwide, 93 percent of abortions are performed in clinics, not hospitals, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.)
In May 2004, Mississippi's legislature passed the single most expansive refusal law in the nation. Also known as a "conscience clause," the law allows any health care provider to refuse to be involved in any service--from referrals to abortions--they object to on moral, ethical, or religious grounds. "Forty-six states allow some health care providers to refuse to provide abortion services," the Guttmacher Institute says.
Texas and Utah require parental consent for adolescents who seek state-funded family planning services. Several states, including Kentucky, Minnesota, and Virginia, introduced bills last year that would impose new requirements for parental consent for teens wanting contraception.
West Virginia is of concern to pro-choice activists, if only because of the sheer number of bills introduced. More than thirty that limit a woman's right to choose are circulating in that legislature.
Kansas's Attorney General Phill Kline is demanding that abortion clinics turn over the complete medical records--including the patient's name, medical history, details of her sex life, birth control practices, and psychological profile--of ninety females who had late-term abortions. Kline, who is anti-abortion, first said he was looking for cases of underage victims of rape. A week later he acknowledged that his investigation is also aimed at "criminal late-term abortion."
This case echoes John Ashcroft's 2004 subpoena of the medical records of 900 women who sought abortions at six Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. Three federal district courts declared Ashcroft's demand unconstitutional.
For too long, we've worried too much about the Supreme Court. Not that it isn't vitally important, but our ability as citizens to affect that outcome is weak, and the timing of such work is intermittent. We can vote for a President who we believe will appoint justices who will uphold the right to choose. We can vote for Senators who we trust will oppose anti-choice nominees. And we can lobby our Senators when the nominations come down.
But between those events, we cannot rest.
We need, on a daily basis, to convince our fellow citizens of the importance of this right. And we need, at the state level, to pressure our local legislators to heed the views of a majority of Americans, a majority that still believes in the right to choose.
If we don't, we'll find ourselves living in the country of Sam Brownback, the America of George Bush's dreams.
From the "Comment" section of the May 2005 issue of The Progressive.