A New Kind of Abortion War


January 1, 2002

As they have been so often in the 28 years since Roe v. Wade, abortion rights supporters are once again on the defensive. This might seem strange, given that the most significant struggle in recent years ended in a pro-choice victory, the approval of the abortion drug RU-486. The Supreme Court didn’t make any big abortion-related decisions this year, nor does it have any such cases coming up on its docket. And though John Ashcroft is undoubtedly the most zealous opponent of abortion rights ever to serve as attorney general, he’s already conceded that Roe, the Supreme Court decision that established the legality of abortion, is off-limits.

But as mainstream pro-lifers acknowledge the futility of a head-on battle over abortion, which would likely fail and cost Republicans the prized women’s vote, they are quietly pushing forward on any number of fronts that undermine a woman’s right to control her body. While trumpeting their message on new “Choose Life” license plates, right-to-lifers are busily mounting campaigns to recognize fetal personhood, discourage education about contraception, and force welfare recipients with children to marry.

“The right understands that these issues are connected, while the left stays polarized and single-issue-focused,” says Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Pro-life success is also a matter of vehemence, according to Paltrow: “The right can pass legislation because they have all these crazy people saying, ‘Outlaw all abortions,’ but there’s no radical left anymore screaming, ‘Free abortions on demand!’ ”

The anti-abortion right scored its first public-opinion grab in 1995, with the bold war over so-called “partial-birth abortion.” That the procedure wasn’t even mentioned in medical textbooks before pro-lifers brought it up (or cooked it up, as some on the pro-choice side insist) was in keeping with this ground-shifting strategy: Find—or create—a new issue that can relate the drama of woman (or doctor or scientist) versus innocent, unborn life; steep it in outrage; and aim it at the political mainstream.

While a solid majority of legislators support a woman’s right to legal abortion, the focus on the phantom procedure pried some from their usual pro-choice comfort zones. Though the legislation, twice vetoed by Clinton, has yet to make it into law, the “partial-birth” campaign—whose success is still No. 1 on the Christian Coalition’s pro-life wish list—ranks as a public relations victory.

With the Supreme Court striking down Nebraska’s ban in 2000, the right has turned its partial-birth approach to stem cells and cloning. Before he began his crash course on Islam, our president was said to have been reading thick tomes about embryonic stem cells, brushing up on his biology not because these marvels hold the promise of curing diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but because they have been enlisted in the political battle over reproduction. Cloning, too, has been reduced to a flash point, with the potential of therapeutic cloning, which is conducted at the cellular level, overshadowed by visions of baby factories.

Some think another largely symbolic proposal is the stealthiest challenge to reproductive rights yet: The “unborn victims of violence” bills being introduced around the country would make it a separate crime to harm or kill a fetus during an assault, though both state and federal versions specifically exempt abortion. Twenty-four states have similar fetal-protection laws already in place. The unborn-victims bills being considered in 15 states would specifically make it an independent crime if a woman loses her pregnancy as a result of an attack.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, says the bill is important primarily because “there are so many of these cases.” Numbers suggest otherwise; the termination of pregnancy through beating is a thankfully rare occurrence. And the federal Unborn Victims of Violence bill, which President Bush has said he will sign in the unlikely event it passes the Senate, applies only in the even rarer situation of such an assault taking place on an army base or other federal property, so there seem to be other reasons why the passage of an unborn-victims bill is among the Christian Coalition’s top five reproductive goals.

“The dangerous reality is that these bills would legally separate a woman from her fetus, which is merely the first step toward eroding a woman’s right to choose,” says Karen Meara, associate vice president for advocacy at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Indeed, in New York State, proposed “unborn victim” legislation would define a person as “a human being who has been born and is alive, or an ‘unborn child’ at any stage of gestation” and murder as including “fetuses at any stage of gestation.”

Two months ago, the local chapter of the Right to Life Committee ran an ad promoting the bill in the New York State Legislative Gazette. Beginning with the headline “One Victim—Or Two?,” the ad features a woman named Tracy Scheide Marciniak, whose son was delivered dead after her husband brutally beat her, and ends with this desperate plea: “Look at the picture of me holding my dead son at his funeral. And then, please, support the bill.”

This no-holds-barred assault on the heartstrings has left opponents of the Unborn Victims legislation in a predictably awkward position. “We all recognize that a pregnancy has incredible value to a woman,” says Heather Boonstra, senior policy analyst at the Alan Guttmacher Institute. “But it should be treated as something that she has lost as opposed to something with its own rights independent of the woman.” In fact, legislation can—and in some states, already does—bolster protections for pregnant women without establishing the fetus as a person, an approach right-to-lifers have shunned for obvious reasons.

In Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, the war of the charged words is being waged on the backs of cars. The four states have approved “Choose Life” license plates, which deliver the anti-abortion message and generate money for anti-abortion groups. In Louisiana, which along with South Carolina and Alabama has temporarily halted production of the license plates until legal challenges have been settled, the plates bear the picture of a pelican carrying a blanketed baby.

It’s difficult to take a stand against a blanketed baby and its life-supporting message, which Florida governor Jeb Bush has called “a very innocuous statement that most people will agree with.” Yet some are objecting to the use of a government branch for partisan fundraising. In Florida, which in 1999 became the first state to introduce the “Choose Life” licenses, the National Organization of Women sued over the plates, which have already raised more than $668,280 for “crisis pregnancy centers” that counsel women not to have abortions.

Pro-choice groups point to the political imbalance of the arrangement. In South Carolina, the local Planned Parenthood affiliate asked that the state issue “Choose Choice” plates to counter the Choose Life message, though a judge denied the request. “This is the only instance where the government funnels money to one side of a very divisive debate,” says Simon Heller, director of the domestic program for the Manhattan-based Center for Reproductive Law & Policy.

And if some would downplay the significance of the license plate policies of a mere four conservative states, three of which are weighing legal arguments against them, Heller warns against such complacency. “This is where it starts,” he says. “But eventually these things become accepted as the norm in our culture. The risk is that this will spread very widely around the country and you have this government-sponsored propaganda everywhere.”

Judging from the National Right to Life Committee’s Web site, Heller’s concerns are valid. After a Florida court dismissed the suit against the plates in late November, Jeanne Gill posted this message: “We can really start spreading the word about the ‘Choose Life’ license plate. We only have 46 more states to go.”

Back in Washington, left and right are gearing up for a bitter fight over other norms that set the country’s reproductive tone. Discussions have already begun about the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which tried to limit out-of-wedlock births by giving financial rewards to states that keep their unmarried birth rates down, promoting sexual abstinence, and cutting back assistance to welfare recipients once their families reach a certain size. In congressional hearings about the reauthorization held earlier this year, the Heritage Foundation’s Patrick Fagan pleaded for even more marriage incentives, blaming illegitimacy and divorce for everything from suicide to a diminished sense of masculinity and femininity in teens.

“The thinking and culture behind today’s federal social programs must be made more marriage-friendly,” said Fagan, who suggested creating an Office of Marriage Initiatives and instituting marriage bonuses for the poor. But for their part, reproductive rights advocates find the marriage enticement approach both coercive and ineffective.

“It’s just such an incredible red herring,” says Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and OB-GYN at Columbia University. “The issue is that people are poor. If what you want is to have children with stable homes, then you need to provide their parents with living wages. Having two unemployed or two starvation-wage people get married is not going to help the kid.”

The new welfare reform bill, which is scheduled for more hearings this spring, is also expected to increase funding for programs that omit information about contraception and abortion and teach that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human activity.” While the 1996 bill set aside $50 million in federal funding for such abstinence-only education annually, the 2002 version is expected to ask for upward of $135 million per year.

Even with the impending budget cuts, abstinence proponents can expect Washington to smile on them in the coming months. Bush, an enthusiastic supporter of abstinence, will likely approve the increased spending. Abstinence advocates hope the surge of money will also work to give this approach the moral high ground, quietly shifting it from the margins to the mainstream.

For the most part, pro-choice groups have been playing catch-up, putting out fires rather than igniting their own public relations offensives. But in this state, they have made some use of the right’s lessons in spin. New York State legislators, who have been unable to pass a bill mandating insurance coverage for contraception in the past, are for the first time optimistic about the passage of a “pill bill” this year. The changing fortunes of the Women’s Health and Wellness Act can mostly be attributed to proponents’ repackaging their message along with proposals requiring screening for breast and cervical cancer.

“If this were a stand-alone contraceptive coverage issue, there’s no way it would pass,” acknowledges Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL-NY. “It’s much easier if you combine it with a bunch of women’s health issues. It also humanizes us.”