Defending Women’s Abortion Rights

Can We Rely on the Democrats?

With George W. Bush in the White House, women’s right to choose is under severe attack. Never has it been clearer that we need to take urgent action to defend our hard won rights.

The leaders of the main feminist organizations, such as NOW and NARAL, continually hammer home one central message this presidential election year – women must vote for “anybody but Bush.”

But can we really rely on Democratic politicians to protect our rights? What is the Democrats’ actual record on abortion?

While most Democratic politicians are pro-choice in words, they have proven to be unreliable at protecting abortion rights in action. Even worse, in many cases Democrats have enthusiastically joined in on Republican attacks.

Rather than fighting Bush, the Democrats have gone along with most of his policies in the name of “bipartisanship” and “supporting the President.” Democratic Senators confirmed the appointment of arch-right winger John Ashcroft as Attorney General and approved several of Bush’s fanatical anti-choice federal Court nominees.

Before Bill Clinton was elected President, as Democratic Arkansas Governor, he passed an anti-abortion parental notification requirement for minors and opposed funding abortions for poor women. Despite this, Clinton was able to win widespread support from pro-choice groups in the 1992 elections by promising to pass a Freedom of Choice Act to bar states from restricting abortion rights, repeal the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women), and secure the coverage of abortions under his new national healthcare program.

But after winning the 1992 election, Clinton promptly forgot all about these pledges, even though the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate his first two years in office.

In fact, Clinton signed into law abortion restrictions barring federal employees’ health insurance from covering abortions, banning abortions in military personnel hospitals abroad, and prohibiting federal funding for federal prisoners’ abortions. He also regularly pandered to the religious right and their anti-abortion “family values.” In the 1996 election Clinton adopted the Christian Right’s calls for teenage sexual abstinence and school uniforms.

As Michael Moore explained in 2000: “Somebody told me [in 1976] that the reason I had to vote for Jimmy Carter was because if Gerald Ford was elected, women would lose their right to choose to have an abortion. So I voted for Jimmy Carter – and guess what? One of the things he did was to stop all abortions provided for women or wives in the armed services! He also stopped any further funding to birth control groups overseas that offered abortion as an alternative. And he ended all Medicaid payments for poor women in need of abortion.”

Explaining his support for the Hyde Amendment, Carter said: “As you know there are many things in life that are not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people can’t.” So, according to this liberal leader of the “pro-choice” Democrats, it’s simply an unfortunate fact of life that poor women may be forced (i.e. have no choice) to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, while rich women can choose?

John Kerry

Voting for or lobbying the Democrats is clearly not an effective way to defend abortion rights. Instead, we must build a mass movement on the streets which is how women won the right to abortion in the first place. In fact, most progressive gains in U.S. history – from civil rights to the 8-hour workday – were the result of mass struggle.

Unfortunately, once again the leaders of the mainstream women’s groups are looking only as far as the coming presidential elections to save abortion rights, arguing that our key focus must be electing Democrat John Kerry to get rid of Bush.

While Kerry has a generally pro-choice voting record, far more is needed. Kerry has made no effort to seriously organize mass resistance that is necessary to stop the right’s attacks on abortion. Furthermore, Kerry and the big-business Democratic Party fundamentally oppose making abortion free and accessible to all women as part of a universal, socialized healthcare system.

Unwilling and Unable

The Democratic Party has been unwilling and unable to effectively resist Bush and the right-wing agenda. Effectively defending abortion requires building a mass movement to pressure the ruling class – which the Democrats are more afraid of than they are of the religious right’s agenda. The Democrats’ corporate paymasters have no desire to see a return of the radical women’s liberation movement that threatened their power and profits by fighting for free abortion on demand and free childcare and opposing U.S. imperialism.

Rich, privileged Democratic politicians are more than prepared to cynically trade away our rights for short-term political or electoral expediency. For example, in 1999 Clinton cut an unprincipled deal with Republicans in Congress, agreeing to a global abortion “gag rule” on international health and women’s rights groups receiving any U.S. funding in return for their support for paying the U.S.’s debt to the UN.

Lesser Evilism

Even so, aren’t the Democrats a “lesser evil” compared to the Republicans? What is wrong with supporting Kerry while still building our own mass movement?

The problem with this lesser-evil logic is that it undermines and destroys social movements. Lesser evilism limits movements’ demands to what is acceptable to the Democratic Party and its big-business backers, leaving our movements incapable of telling people the truth and fighting consistently for our interests.

In 1989 and 1992, when the Supreme Court almost overturned Roe v. Wade, NOW organized two marches on Washington in 1989 that drew a total of 900,000 people and another protest of over 500,000 in 1992. These massive demonstrations – under a Republican president (Bush Sr.) – forced the Court to uphold the right to an abortion.

However, from 1993 to 2000 the liberal feminist leaders held back from calling mass protests out of fear of “embarrassing our friend” Clinton. It was precisely this lack of an activist pro-choice presence that allowed the religious right to succeed in steadily rolling back abortion access throughout the ’90s.

The logic of supporting Kerry and the Democrats will pressure feminists to avoid embarrassing Kerry by not building the unapologetic, bold women’s rights movement that we need. This will mean the terms of the abortion debate will continue to move in the religious right’s favor.

We have already been told, for example, that “now is the not the time” to demand same-sex marriages (because Kerry opposes them). The same will go for universal national healthcare, free childcare, or ending the occupation of Iraq.

Supreme Court

Many fear that if Bush is re-elected he will have the opportunity to appoint anti-abortion Supreme Court Justices, tipping the balance on the Court in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade.

While this threat is certainly real, the best way to deal with it is by building a massive movement which can bring social pressure to bear on the Court – which supporting Kerry only undermines.

We need to remember that the landmark Roe v. Wade court decision occurred under a Republican president (Nixon), with the majority of Court Justices appointed by Republican presidents. Because of the pressure of the women’s liberation movement and the radicalization of U.S. society at the time, the Supreme Court was forced to legalize abortion in a 7-2 decision.

This was shown again in the 1989 Webster and 1992 Casey cases when hundreds of thousands marched to prevent the Supreme Court from overturning Roe v. Wade. The Casey majority opinion stated: “A decision to overrule Roe … under the existing circumstances would address error, if error there was, at the cost of both profound and unnecessary damage to the Court’s legitimacy.” Translated, due to the widespread public support for abortion rights, to criminalize abortion would lead to a massive backlash and undermine the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, the president does not directly appoint justices to the Supreme Court; the nominees must also be confirmed by the Senate. Two of the most right-wing anti-abortion justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were only confirmed due to the support of Democrats. Scalia was confirmed by a unanimous vote of 98-0, and Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52-48 in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Break From the Democratic Party

The “anybody but Bush” strategy means continuing the same bankrupt policies of the liberal leaders of the women’s movement that have utterly failed to stem the tide of restrictions on abortion access.

Rather than focusing on getting Democrats elected, we need to focus on what has actually achieved real gains for women – building a militant mass movement so that whichever ruling class party is in power will be forced to accept our demands.

As long as the Democratic Party can take women’s votes for granted, they will continue to cede ground to the Republicans on abortion. Building the strongest possible independent progressive political alternative to the Democrats, on the other hand, would pressure the Democrats to defend abortion far more aggressively out of fear of losing their millions of pro-choice voters.

The independent anti-war, anti-corporate presidential campaign of Ralph Nader provides a real alternative in 2004 to the two big business parties of war and sexism. Nader supports not only the legal right to abortion but also making abortion accessible as part of a universal, single-payer healthcare system.

Kerry and the Democrats oppose same-sex marriage rights, and they support the occupation of Iraq, the Patriot Act, for-profit healthcare, and corporate globalization. Nader, in contrast, opposes the occupation of Iraq, and supports same-sex marriage rights, money for jobs and childcare instead of war, and repealing the Patriot Act.

Nader should undoubtedly be much more outspoken about women’s abortion rights and sexism. Nonetheless, his stances are much more in line with the interests of women than Kerry’s. In 2000 Nader, in fact, adopted NOW’s entire platform.

Supporting Nader and breaking free from the trap of lesser-evilism is an important step towards laying the basis for the building of a new political party that can unite women, the anti-war movement, LGBT people, people of color, workers and environmentalists around our common opposition to big business’s agenda.

Justice #38 Supplement April 2004