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Republicans shun the 'A' word

...but that has not stopped them from opposing abortion in practice, says David Nolan

Here in the USA, it has become rather amusing to watch candidates for the Republican presidential nomination twist themselves into ever-tighter knots, to avoid saying anything definitive about abortion.

Frontrunners George W Bush and Elizabeth Dole have both announced that they will not push for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Dole said that although she is 'pro-life', an outright ban on abortion was 'irrelevant' and a low priority. As part of his 'compassionate conservatism' theme, Bush claimed that 'you can't change the law, you have to change the hearts and minds of the country'. Neither Bush nor Dole will require their nominees for the Supreme Court to pass an 'anti-abortion litmus test'. Bush has also said that his running mate for vice-president need not oppose abortion, opening the possibility of choosing a pro-choice running mate who could attract Clinton/ Dole-hating Democrats and Republicans who could not vote for an anti-abortion candidate.

It seems that finally, pragmatic and moderate Republican Party members have cottoned on to the fact that the party's commitment to a constitutional ban on abortion deters women and moderate voters. But we should be clear that none of these people are about to join an abortion rights group. Their legislative history alone shows how vehemently anti-abortion they are.

According to a survey by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), George W Bush has signed 18 anti-choice provisions while governor of Texas and is 'the most anti-choice governor in the country'; and John McCain, another candidate claiming to equivocate on the abortion issue, voted on 82 of 86 occasions to restrict reproductive choices for women. Other prominent candidates Dole, Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes have not held elective office but support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

On one level, it is difficult to see why the Republicans are moving away from the issue that has defined them over the past 25 years; especially as, according to the polls, more and more Americans feel uncomfortable about abortion. A New York Times/CBS News poll in 1998 claimed that as many as 50 percent of Americans equate abortion to murder; many now consider the reasons given for abortions to be trivial; and only 32 percent believe abortion should be generally available to all women. However, when it came to the crunch question, about a constitutional ban on all abortions, 75 percent demurred, considering such a move too extreme.

Therein lies the nub of the issue. The Republican stance on abortion was unequivocal, absolute. In an era when absolutes are frowned on, it became too extreme - believing in something so strongly was guaranteed to drive people away. Yet although Republicans have become reluctant to air strong views about this issue, Republican-dominated legislatures, at both a federal and state level, have spent the past several years introducing and passing a series of laws that restrict access to abortion in practice.

Many new laws are on the cards. According to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP), nearly 200 bills in 44 states that would curtail reproductive rights were due to be decided in 1999. But, in a move designed to ease the passage of these laws, some of the new proposals do not even refer to abortion. In Missouri, for example, the Infant Protection Act outlawing infanticide was drafted in such a way that it could prevent some first-trimester abortions.

A more serious move was passed by Congress in October. Called the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the law granted new legal status to 'unborn children' under a cloak of fighting crime. The law establishes zygotes, blastocysts, embryos and fetuses as separate persons under federal law, essentially bestowing legal personhood on the fetus - a long-term aim of the anti-abortion lobby. It was passed 254-172, far from the two-thirds majority required to overcome a likely Clinton veto. While it specifically excludes abortion, it was, according to an editorial in the Washington Post, 'a clever, if transparent effort to establish a foothold in the law for the idea that killing a fetus can be murder'. And it is little surprise that the bill was drafted by the National Right to Life Committee and sponsored by hard-line anti-abortion congressmen Lindsey Graham, Charles Canady and Chris Smith.

It should be said that many of these behind-the-scenes anti-abortion moves are supported by Democrats, and that many are thrown out by the courts. But many more remain on the statute books. According to the latest report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 29 states require parental involvement in minors' abortion decisions; 22 states require state-directed counselling before an abortion, with 14 of those requiring a mandatory delay following the counselling; 14 states restrict private and/or public employee insurance coverage for abortion; 34 states restrict Medicaid-funded abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the woman's life is endangered; 29 states have passed laws banning 'partial birth abortion' (in 20 the laws have been blocked by state or federal courts); and 40 states restrict later abortions.

The CRLP has documented a host of other attempts to restrict access to abortion, including the introduction of needless regulations for clinics, covering such vital elements of treatment as doorway width and lawn care. If passed, other laws will introduce penalties for women whose behaviour during pregnancy may harm the fetus; force women to inform the 'father' about an abortion; and force funding for anti-abortion groups. In addition to all this, there are vast swathes of the mid-western and southern states with few, if any, abortion providers, and at least 90 small cities have no provider at all.

Now we have the almost surreal situation that while the Republican candidates for the presidency avoid any suggestion that they will curtail abortion rights, their shock troops throughout the country have successfully curtailed women's access to services. The Republican Party appears to have instinctively taken on board the notion that while extreme opposition to abortion was a vote loser, repackaging the same sentiment in rights-based language, in this case 'fetal rights', can still have some appeal. While the presidential veto and the balance of forces in the Supreme Court have defended women's constitutional rights on paper, the reality is that abortion services throughout the USA have been restricted by innovative attacks through the back door from a small group of determined conservatives.

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999

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