Preserving Choice

Each year the anti-abortion movement becomes more aggressive and insidious in its campaign to undermine reproductive rights. But somehow the abortion-rights majority -- convinced that a broad base of support protects the freedoms we cherish -- dismisses the threat. This complacency is the anti-choice movement's strongest asset.

William Saletan looks at this conundrum in his new book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. Saletan begins by incisively recounting the most visible part of the abortion story -- what one reviewer called America's "Thirty Years' War" over the basic protections enshrined in Roe v. Wade. His thorough reporting shows how our movement cemented a clear public majority for what is an essentially conservative position: that reproductive decisions fall into a realm of personal privacy where government has no place. He revisits the success of our compelling message: "Who Decides? You or Them?"

The book also examines the shrewdness of anti-choice activists in shifting the debate away from basic questions and onto seemingly peripheral issues like parental consent requirements and the individual procedures referred to by the inflammatory (and inaccurate) name of "partial-birth abortion." Reflecting the conventional wisdom that the general public consensus favors the right to choose but also favors restrictions, Saletan and others think our movement should not take on such battles.

Leaving aside the fact that when voters have been able to examine restrictive proposals more thoroughly, they have defeated them in referenda across the country, there are serious flaws in this view. In reality, the right to choose is already eroding for many women.

The anti-choice movement's militant wing has used intimidation tactics to dramatically reduce the number of doctors willing to risk their practices and their lives by even training to perform abortions. Nearly 90 percent of all U.S. counties have no abortion providers whatsoever.

Every year, state and federal governments add new restrictions. The women targeted by these restrictions tend to be poor, or young, or in a life-endangering situation late in pregnancy, or live in a rural area or serve in the U.S. military. Each new restriction represents a strategic step toward a long-term goal the far right has never abandoned: total abolition of the right to choose.

Under the Bush administration, this strategy of incremental abolition has only picked up steam. Bush ally Samuel B. Casey, executive director of the Christian Legal Society, plainly laid out the long-term plan in a recent Los Angeles Times article: "In as many areas as we can, we want to put on the books that the embryo is a person. That sets the stage for a jurist to acknowledge that human beings at any stage of development deserve protection -- even protection that would trump a woman's interest in terminating a pregnancy."

The administration has pursued this goal wherever expedient. Under cover of providing medical assistance to uninsured pregnant women who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid -- a step that the administration resisted as a free-standing measure -- Bush officials have expanded the definition of "childhood" to include the period between conception and birth.

The White House has been even more shameless in promoting what used to be called the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" and is now referred to as "Laci and Conner's Law" (in reference to the horrible Peterson family tragedy in California). The administration claims the bill is merely intended to punish violence against women more severely when it injures or terminates a pregnancy. If that were all it did, abortion-rights advocates would support it. Our movement is committed to ensuring women the right to become mothers when they choose to. But this bill's real purpose is evident from its legislative language, which defines the fetus as a person. The anti-choice crowd has tried to deny that this would have an impact on Roe, but one of its sponsors, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), admitted to a CNN interviewer last May 7, "They say it undermines abortion rights. It does."

Organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America -- and those who share our commitment to reproductive freedom -- must oppose such tactics or we will see our rights disappear by degree. Leaving vulnerable women in a position where their right to choose exists only on paper would be morally unacceptable. And allowing the far right to advance its strategic agenda uncontested would amount to waiting until the wolves are at the door. We must resist the far right and remind people that every intrusion on personal privacy is an assault on the fundamental liberties we cherish. Because it still boils down to that same basic question: Who decides?