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Life and Liberty for Women
 
Shortcomings of the Current Abortion Rights Movement


Over the last ten years I have become increasingly aware that the current abortion rights organizations have some major shortcomings which I believe left women vulnerable to the messages, the lies, and distortions of the anti-abortion movement.
The religious right has been incredibly successful at raising millions upon millions of dollars from their dedicated supporters. They have also been incredibly skillful at molding the emotionally charged, warm fuzzy messages and strategies that have been responsible for changing not only the landscape and premise of the abortion debate, but also boxing the abortion rights movement into a defensive stance. Playing defense has nearly cost the abortion rights movement Roe vs. Wade. They barely succeeded at staving off a direct hit on Roe, beginning in the 80's with anti-abortion Presidents and continuing into the 90's with an increasingly anti-abortion
 
Congress and many anti-abortion state legislatures. Marlene Gerber Fried, From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom, 1990 articulated it this way, "In the aftermath of Webster, fear of further losses is causing some mainstream pro-choice groups to continue the defensive posture that has characterized the pro-choice movement since Roe vs. Wade. They argue that if we fail to compromise, we will lose everything. The political implications of this stance are already being felt."
The abortion rights movement, has been working with a limited supply of money, and an ever shrinking, frightened, discouraged, and complacent base of supporters. They were forced to fight tough defensive battles to stave off legislative attacks both in Congress and at the state level, all with limited success. They were forced to fight state ballot measures and work feverishly to increase their influence in state electoral politics.

The current abortion rights movement has
employed strategies that have serious flaws.

The only saving grace? Persistent, and somewhat successful, legal challenges to anti-abortion laws, the Supreme Court's current narrow margin reluctant to over turn Roe vs. Wade because of the public's fear, albeit shrinking, of ALL abortions being banned AND a fear of government limiting personal freedom. These four events, as luck would have it, has barely, and for now, kept the abortion rights movement in the ball game.
How did we get to this point of desperation?
First, Ricki Solinger in her essay "Poisonous Choice", printed in a book titled "Bad Mothers", makes this case. The adoption of the word and actions of "choice" over the word and actions of "right" in 1973 by abortion rights advocates in order to win legalization of abortion, has had far reaching consequences.
 
Eventually, Solinger notes, the word "choice" became associated "with bad women making bad choices."
In her essay, Solinger deals with the question of "Who is a mother? Who decides, and using what criteria?" Solinger's purpose in the essay was to "consider the consequences for millions of women in the United States of the brief flicker, and then the withering away, of 'rights' claims in the pregnancy/motherhood arena, and the substitution of 'choice' as the governing principle - the principle that girls and women must count on in order to own their own bodies and their destinies. I will," she says, "argue that the concept of 'choice' endangers many women in this country. And the danger is broad and deep, going well beyond the issue of abortion."

the abortion rights movement broadened their base at the price of narrowing
their agenda.(and) they never bargained for the latter consequence.

Solinger's piece is insightful and she reminds us of what we can never escape, the connection between motherhood, choice, and class privilege. Solinger says, "As with slave women, poor Catholic urban women, and white unwed mothers in the past, many contemporary women are cast as lacking the right to claim motherhood status or to escape sanctions for having made the claim. But 'choice' has a new trenchant relevancy for public policy, as it provides the anti-welfare constituency with a justification for ending benefits and provides anti-abortion proponents with justification for tightening access to abortion. After a quarter of a century, it is clear that 'choice', a term that many people continue to use as if it is interchangeable with 'rights', operates in a context quite alienated from women's rights."
Second, I am deeply concerned about a strategy that William Saleten, writing in 1998 in Abortion Wars, edited by Ricki Solinger, spoke of. (Recommended reading "Bearing Right - How Conservatives Won the Abortion War" by William Saletan, 2003) It's a strategy that was conceived of in the early 80's by a few abortion rights strategists who worked to develop what Saleten calls an aggressive conservative anti-government message rather than women's rights message in order to win the votes of independents and
 
moderate republicans. And while it did indeed have the intended consequence of broadening the base of "pro-choice" voters, it also had a devastating unintended consequence. In Abortion Wars, Saleten said, "There is an old maxim in politics that to broaden your base of support, you must narrow your agenda. That is what the conservative message strategy accomplished. It attracted moderate and conservative voters to the abortion rights movement by muting the liberal feminist elements of the movement's message."
Saleten believes that this conservative strategy was successful for a libertarian backlash against reviving abortion restrictions, a backlash that staved off, even "crushing", says Saleten, a direct hit on Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court in the Casey decision in 1992. But Saleten notes that the abortion rights movement lost control of that conservative message strategy. He says that the abortion rights movement "broadened their base at the price of narrowing their agenda.(and) they never bargained for the latter consequence. And they did not foresee that by demanding less government and more sovereignty for families, they were thematically sanctioning those restrictions." He was speaking of restrictions like parental notice/consent laws, 24-hour waiting periods, and bans on public funding.

the unintended consequence of this conservative message strategy has
placed current abortion rights organizations in a precarious position

Saleten explains in detail, the unintended consequence of this message strategy. "This is not to say that the conservative message persuaded swing voters to support such restrictions. They needed no such persuasion. What the conservative message gave these voters," Saleten says, "was a libertarian rationale that allowed them to identify themselves as pro-choice without renouncing those restrictions. They could embrace parental involvement laws as an extension of their belief in the sovereignty of families. They could spurn public funding of abortions as an affront to their belief in smaller government. A pro-choice message that called for less government and more family sovereignty was music to their ears."
"In hindsight," Saleten continues, "the architects of the conservative message would like to set these voters straight. They would like to explain that being pro-family does not mean favoring parental involvement laws and that being anti-government does not mean opposing public funding of abortions. From the moment they expounded their conservative theme, these architects assumed they were in charge of its interpretation. They failed to
 
anticipate how ideas, once launched into the currents of politics, develop lives of their own. In the wake of Webster, the conservative pro-choice message attracted new exponents and new interpreters. Abortion rights activists lost control of it."
Clearly, the unintended consequence of this conservative message strategy has placed current abortion rights organizations in a precarious position. They no longer, if they ever did, control the message strategy, and find themselves torn between how to keep those voters at the same time they set them straight. My concern has been a demonstrated fear by the abortion rights movement to "setting these voters straight." That fear has also been responsible, I believe, for the failure of the abortion rights movement to keep their base of supporters engaged and energized. That left the swing voters, and the base of supporters of the abortion rights movement as well, unprotected and prey for the exploitation and manipulation by the anti-abortion religious extremists who salivated at the movement's miscalculation and fear and who proceeded to take advantage of it.

So, for the abortion rights movement, what is the unwitting
result of adopting a conservative message strategy
and the language of choice vs. the language of rights?

I formed Life and Liberty for Women to articulate the messages that will set the swing voters straight and create enthusiasm and engagement, once again, from our base of abortion rights supporters. I am confident about exactly how to do both. I have articulated the messages in letters to the editor and op-ed pieces and spoken at abortion rights rallies, in which supporters said they were glad I had the courage to say what I said the way I said it. The way I intend to say it through Life and Liberty for Women. Not surprisingly, my most ardent supporters have been from our grassroots - those who are the most steadfast supporters of abortion rights. I believe it is because they are starved for the forthrightness of a message of abortion RIGHTS and an EMOTIONAL delivery that excites them and deepens their conviction for abortion rights. Marlene Gerber Fried, in From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement, 1990 said, "The activists who are flocking to the movement are
 
receptive to a more radical politics than those being offered by the mainstream organizations."
A very successful anti-abortion exploitation of this message strategy. Anti-abortion religious extremists constructed a powerful emotional anti-woman theme. That theme continues to pit poor "bad women/mothers" against middle class "good women/mothers". That theme also uses all that the word "choice" encompasses in an attempt to prove that women really cannot be good moral beings capable or trusted with making good moral decisions and therefore must be reined in.
The religious right extremists then cleverly crouched this misogynist and divisive theme in an emotional message that says, without apology, that a fetus has a right to life and liberty that surpasses a woman's right to life and liberty from conception to birth. No exceptions. Ever.

Sadly and dangerously, women are capitulating to that message and
are now ashamed to own or speak of THEIR RIGHT to life and liberty.

Tanya Melich, a republican woman, evidenced this nightmare for us in living color in her book, The Republican War Against Women. In 1981 a religious right wing extremist junior senator from North Carolina, John East, introduced one of several "human life" constitutional amendments. Melich writes, "East's amendment championed the words of the Republican platform that gave a fertilized egg more rights than a woman. It didn't simply abrogate Roe vs. Wade by making abortion a crime; it made the fetus superior to the woman. The amendment's strict principle of fetal personhood permitted no exceptions, not even for the life of the mother. Abortion would be murder, and a woman who underwent it would be a sinner. She could be charged with
 
murder either directly or as an accessory as could all others involved-including doctors and other health professionals."
Documenting this capitulation is The Center for Gender Equality established by former Planned Parenthood executive director, Fay Wattleton. The Center for Gender Equality found, in a poll conducted in 1998, that 53% of women say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances or be allowed only in the case of rape, incest, or to save a woman's life. Further and equally as frightening is a comprehensive survey of 1999 college freshman which found that only half support efforts to keep abortion legal, a record-low figure after six years on the decline.

Is it any wonder that we've only been able to win
some of the battles but are about to lose the war?

Additional evidence from The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League's yearly state by state review for 1999 reveals the following;
A. "More anti-choice legislation (affecting not just abortion but also contraception, sex education and the rights of pregnant women) was introduced and enacted in the states in 1999 than in any previous year, with 439 measures introduced and 70 enacted. This report revels an escalation of anti-choice legislative activity over the last five years - the number of anti-choice measures enacted has skyrocketed almost 300% since 1995."
B. "In the last six years, Congress voted 120 times on reproductive health issues. Pro-choice Americans lost all but 22 of these votes."
Add to this the harassment of women seeking abortion and family planning services by anti-abortion extremists outside of our clinics, acts of vandalism to our clinics, and the murder of our providers and staff. All committed in an effort to intimidate and scare providers into not performing abortions and intimidating and scaring women into not exercising their right to an abortion. Harassing women is also about shaming women into denying that they, not
 
just the fetus, also have a right to life and liberty. And harassing women destroys their belief in themselves as good moral beings making good moral decisions when they decide that termination of their pregnancy is in the best interest of both themselves and the fetus they are pregnant with.
I believe that to reverse the unintended effects of the abortion rights conservative message strategy, wipe away the consequence and aftermath of the language of choice, undo the damage the anti-abortion messages and scare tactics have done and to ensure the survival of Roe vs. Wade, both a community and mass media education program is necessary. I also believe the message must be a progressive, aggressive message about RIGHTS. But it isn't a message about just a woman's right but rather a honest forthright message about balancing the right to life and liberty of woman and fetus, so wisely and morally done in Roe vs. Wade. It is the kind of message that current abortion rights organizations can't speak, because they are what I call the "business suit" part of the movement because they must lobby legislators, conduct electoral work, and because they are the deliverers of the conservative message strategy to the swing voters. But I can speak the message of RIGHTS, with Life and Liberty for Women.


 
 
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