BY: | May 7, 2005


Last fall, I went to Ohio to participate in the “battleground state” mobilization to defeat George Bush. Going door to door, I talked with more than a few men and women who said the deciding issue for them was abortion, and that they supported Bush because he was against it.

And while I don’t believe that Bush won the election because of the abortion issue, clearly it is an important question that influenced the thinking of millions, and will have an impact on political life and the prospects for victory in the period ahead.

In the wake of the elections, some have said we should back-burner these “cultural issues,” while some have called for emphasizing “economic” issues. I would argue, though – as others have – that what we must do is to frame the debates more broadly. This is especially true with the difficult and contentious issue of abortion.

In re-framing this issue, however, we don’t cede an inch on the principle that women must have this basic right.  Rather, we should argue for including abortion rights in a broader continuum, in which all women have access to the resources necessary for healthy living; where there are living-wage, union jobs and job training so that women can support themselves (and their children if they have them); where women can be free from fear, safe from violence and legally protected from discrimination.

When we reduce reproductive rights — “choice”– to abortion rights alone, we leave out the other “choices” that are increasingly unavailable to millions of women, choices having to do with the ability to safely bear, care for, and educate children. And in so doing, we buy into the right’s strategy of separating off the issue of abortion rights.

The “choices” available to women are constrained from many directions. Here are some of the facts:

  • Although Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, it is threatened by imminent rightward changes in the Supreme Court;
  • Despite Roe v. Wade, abortion services are unavailable in 87% of counties overall and 97% of non-metropolitan counties in the United States;
  • Since 1977, federal health dollars are prohibited from being used for abortion services;
  •  Most medical schools do not include abortion training in their core curriculum, and only 5% of abortions happen in hospitals where most medical students and residents receive their training;
  • Many state and local laws limit access to abortion, via age and notification restrictions and waiting periods, and by allowing doctors and (federally funded) hospitals to “opt out” for religious reasons.

Equally relevant facts include the following:

  • The Bush budget cuts more than 150 programs, a large percentage of which serve children and their families, including Head Start and other pre-k programs, health care and after-school programs;
  • In NYC the waiting list for day care vouchers exceeds eight years; the average cost of private day care for a four-year-old in New York State is $9,000 a year;
  • At around 18%, infant mortality Washington, DC is more than twice the national average and ranks with other countries at about 85th in the world;
  • Women are the majority of minimum wage workers; women still make 75 cents to the dollar earned by men.
  • Single women (19%) and female-headed households (26%) make up the great majority of our nation’s poor.

We must add that for every example cited above, the problems are hugely magnified for African American and other racially and nationally oppressed women. Racist attitudes, practices and structures impinge on women’s reproductive rights in a myriad of ways and must be part of all struggles for equality of rights and resources.

Despite – or because of – all of this, we can and must engage in the debate on reproductive rights with confidence that we can win. Why? Because November 2 notwithstanding, we’ve come a long way, baby. Big majorities in our country are firmly in the camp of women’s equality. Big majorities, including among Republicans, list equal pay and equal rights for women, women’s health services, and the struggle against discrimination, sexual harassment and domestic violence as major concerns.

Thus the reframing of the abortion rights issue in a broader way makes possible bringing together the sizable majority necessary to defeat the right-wing agenda.

It also allows us to focus on the gross contradictions in the right’s claim to be “pro-life.” In George Bush and Karl Rove’s world, children and families are idealized and “promoted” – with words, of course, not deeds. The reality of life for children and their families is far from ideal — in fact, the truth about the right-wing agenda is that children are being robbed, from birth through young adulthood. You have a right to be born — but no right to a doctor’s care. You have a right to be born — but no right to day care or early childhood education. You have a right to be born — but no right to quality education, after school programs, job training.

All of this occurs in the context of the erasing of the lines separating church and state, the dismantling of the public sector, a general attack on democratic rights and the immoral right-wing agenda of war, privatization, corporate greed and power, and racism.

The same right wing that argues fervently for the right to be born has sent close to 1500 young American men and women to their deaths in the war against Iraq, not to mention the tens of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqi children and youth.

In the debate on abortion, both “sides” have employed a single word to make their point: “life” and “choice.” We have to stretch our understanding of these concepts and bind them together into a position that can win the broad support necessary to challenge the ultra right, and that can win hearts and minds as well as elections.



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