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Abortion in the USA

Nancy Morton traces the retreat of the 'pro-life' crusade

Bill Clinton delighted pro-choice campaigners by overturning five pieces of Bush anti-abortion legislation within days of taking office. He rescinded a law banning federal funding of clinics offering abortion counselling, opened the door again to US funding for international family planning programmes and lifted the bans on medical research using fetal tissue.

Feminists breathed a sigh of relief. A year ago it looked as though they were losing the abortion debate in the USA. Last June the supreme court, packed with anti-abortionists by the Reagan and Bush administrations, agreed to review a legal case which would decide whether restrictions on access to abortion imposed by the state of Pennsylvania were constitutional. Many feared that the court might go further and ban abortion altogether.

Bleak portraits

Massive pro-choice demonstrations besieged Washington. Artists and writers produced bleak portraits of life in a world without legal abortion. Feminists produced videos on safe abortion techniques for underground distribution. Then, to the astonishment of many (especially the anti-abortionists), the court refused to endorse the most important new restrictions and left intact Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling which legalised abortion.

It seemed that the tide was turning in favour of choice. In a poll in Parade magazine, 71 per cent of Americans believed that abortion should remain legal and 78 per cent thought that 'pro-lifers' have gone too far in their attempts to stop abortion. Most people are appalled by the bombings of abortion clinics and the tactics of groups like Operation Rescue, who harass women seeking abortions. According to Catholics for a Free Choice, even a majority of Catholics oppose church sanctions against doctors, women or politicians who support abortion.

Kicking themselves

Strident opposition to abortion, with its strong moral message, turned out to be a vote-loser in the presidential election. Republican politicians have since been kicking themselves for making it an issue.

So why the change of mood? Not long ago being against abortion was a must for American politicians of all parties. The last Democratic Party president, Jimmy Carter, went out of his way to declare that he would only favour abortion in the case of rape or incest. George Bush, who was once dubbed 'Rubbers' because of his enthusiastic support for family planning clinics, dropped his own more liberal abortion views when he became Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980. Opposition to abortion was so widely accepted that some sort of concession to the anti-abortionists became essential for politicians of all political persuasions.

Supporting 'family values' and opposing abortion were important for aspirant politicians as a sort of code for the American way of life. To appeal for traditional family values was to appeal to the traditional way of doing things, an evocation of life as it should be. The all-American family was the bedrock on which society was built, in need of defence against sixties liberals who believed in sex without responsibility and women's rights. Anyone who disagreed wasn't just wrong - they were immoral!

In the eighties opposition to abortion was an important part of the conservative backlash against liberal values. If there were problems in society, the moralists argued, it was because nobody knew the difference between right and wrong. And what issue could be more clear-cut than the sanctity of the unborn? It was time to put America on track again with this most important of issues. Liberals, feminists and all pro-choicers were attacked for trying to undermine the American way. As well as helping to put the Democrats on the defensive, the Republican right's crusade against abortion was also useful in assuring Reagan of the support of the well-organised fundamentalist religious groups.

But there is a big difference between rhetoric and reality. While the rhetoric of restricting abortion could consolidate the 'moral right', its practical consequences were difficult to negotiate.

The decisions to ban the use of Medicaid, (federal-funded healthcare for the poor) for abortion, and to restrict other state funding for abortion services were moral victories that turned sour. The authorities could ban abortion, but they couldn't ban sex and pregnancy. Middle class women could afford to travel and pay for private abortions in clinics in the more liberal states. The restrictions were a problem for the poor who also continued to get pregnant - but now they had to have their babies. The prospect of the increase in births among teenagers, especially black teenagers in the inner cities, filled the middle class moralists with dread. Abortion may be repugnant but teenage motherhood - the expansion of the hated 'underclass' - was seen as even worse.

One in five

Teenage pregnancy is perceived as a big problem in US inner-city areas, with over a million such pregnancies every year. One in five teenage girls already has one child, and a quarter of these will have another within two years. In Baltimore there is an entire high school, the Laurence Taquin School, for students who are pregnant or already have children. Worries about population growth among the poor, especially poor blacks, have prompted legislators in such conservative strongholds as Kansas and Louisiana to propose offering higher welfare payments to women who agree to use the new contraceptive Norplant, a device which is inserted into the arm and lasts up to five years.

Sharp end

The poor were at the sharp end of the abortion cutbacks, but tighter state restrictions began to hit middle class America too. Professional women did not take kindly to the idea that - even if they paid for it - they could not receive abortion advice in state-funded clinics. The notion that in some states an educated woman might require her husband's written permission for an abortion was abhorrent to a generation that had grown up in the sixties. And the consequences of forcing minors to obtain parental permission became tragically apparent.

Karen and Bill Bell from Indiana, were interviewed by the Times last year, after their daughter, Becky, died from complications following an illegal abortion. Becky was unable to have an abortion without obtaining her parents' permission - which she would not ask for. Mr Bell admitted that he had supported the change in the law which denied Becky the ability to have a safe, legal abortion, but he now understands its consequences. 'She died for a law we would have voted for', he said: 'If it was not for that law she could have had a safe and legal abortion.' (5 May 1992) It has become clear to many Americans that being against abortion in principle is one thing, but when it comes down to themselves or their children, they definitely want the facilities to be available.

The pro-lifers' loss of the initiative in the USA has been facilitated by the breakdown of the system of Cold War politics. First Reagan and then Bush were able to use the 'us and them', 'good against evil' framework of Cold War ideology to polarise American politics and put their opponents on the defensive around carefully selected issues. Abortion was one of them. Today, however, it is easier for people to judge issues on their own terms, instead of through the distorting lens provided by Cold War politics. Now being strongly against abortion can even lose you votes.

In November's presidential elections, the more the Republicans banged the moralising anti-abortion drum, the more they appeared strident and out of touch. People were concerned about their livelihoods, and there was little enthusiasm for a resurrection of the 'good versus evil' moral counterpositions which had worked so well for the Republicans in the eighties. Clinton reaped the benefits.

So is the right to have an abortion safe under Clinton? Don't count on it. Laws banning abortion outright are unlikely, but measures giving the authorities more control over who can and can't have them will continue to trickle through.

Don't trust them

Nor will Clinton be under any public pressure to liberalise abortion controls, whatever his or Hillary's private views. Although most Americans are against outright bans on abortion, public opinion still resists abortion on demand. Polls show that 78 per cent favour a waiting period and support many of the other measures which states have taken to make abortions more difficult to obtain. The anti-abortionists may be on the retreat, but the wider conservative mood in America ensures that most people do not regard the ability to terminate an unwanted pregnancy as a basic right that every woman needs. As long as this is the case, anything can happen.

Clinton and his vice-president, Al Gore are formally in favour of choice. But we should be wary of trusting any politicians with women's rights. 'Rubbers' Bush dropped his principles and oversaw the biggest-ever rollback of abortion rights. The pro-choice Gore voted against government funding for abortion when he was under pressure in congress. Should we have any more confidence in Clinton?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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