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 He rescinded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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993