Shifting Dominance

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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

From the perspective of anti-abortion activists, the end of the 1980s saw only meager progress toward the goal of eliminating abortion, either within Congress or in the Supreme Court. The Human Life Amendment, intended to make abortion unconstitutional, had been defeated in 1983. In 1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services technically upheld Roe, but it gave states the freedom to place restrictions on access to and choice about abortion. The decision demonstrated that while the Supreme Court had moved to the right, there were not enough votes to overturn Roe fully. Anti-abortion groups were dissatisfied with bureaucratic victories, including the appointment by President Ronald Reagan of pro-life C. Everett Koop as the Surgeon General. Although in 1980 the Supreme Court finally declared the Hyde Amendment constitutional, and Reagan's staff issued a pro-life tract under his name,18 the prospects for eliminating a woman's right to abortion at the federal level looked bleak.

Mainstream anti-choice leaders were frustrated, as were many of their members. Impatience seemed to breed further hostility and resentment against the apparent ineffectiveness, not only of Reagan and Bush, but of the pro-life movement. In repeated moves that were to be mirrored throughout the rest of the century, individuals began to defect from anti-abortion groups or were asked to leave by the group leaders when they voiced their willingness to engage in more militant tactics, including violence.

During the 1980s, non-violent groups headed by Catholic pacifists like John O'Keefe in Wahington, DC and Sam Lee in St. Louis started to lose members to fringe groups influenced by Scheidler's Closed, 99 Ways to Stop Abortion and the Army of God Manual, an instruction book on how to use violence to end abortion. Occasional acts of violence, such as the kidnapping of Hector Zevallos, an abortion provider, outside of St. Louis in 1982, began a wave of violence directed at clinic staff that quickly escalated. Over 300 acts of violence occurred against clinics between January 1983 and March 1985. In his important book on the anti-abortion movement, researcher Dallas Blanchard documents the movement's change "from polite to fiery protest." He maintains that the movement's disappointed expectations under the first Reagan/Bush Administration and members' frustration with the lack of progress caused the shift in tone and action. Not until Reagan spoke out against the clinic violence did it abate temporarily.19

In 1987, Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue in a bid to replace Scheidler's

Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) with a more strident voice. Operation Rescue enjoyed four years of notoriety, while its charismatic leader engineered hundreds of sit-ins and clinic blockades across the country, taunting police to arrest protesters and receiving massive publicity. Rev. Jerry Falwell demonstrated his support for Operation Rescue's tactics at a press conference in front of an Atlanta clinic protest in 1987. The height of Operation Rescue's influence came in Wichita, Kansas when Pat Robertson spoke at a 1991 rally attended by 25,000 pro-life supporters at the culmination of Operation Rescue's "Summer of Mercy." As Terry began to sound more apocalyptic as well as more critical of other pro-life activists, he lost his hold on the organization. Operation Rescue declined as a force within the anti-abortion movement and, by Spring 1992, an Operation Rescue event in Buffalo attracted few protesters. Terry's less skilled, but equally boisterous lieutenant, Flip Benham, became Operation Rescue's head in 1994.

The anti-abortion movement was losing ground in public opinion as well. Approval of abortion rights grew substantially in the decade between the mid-60s to the mid-70s and then leveled off without significant overall change in either direction.20 Although pro-life advocates enlisted their own pollster (Richard Wirthlin who worked for Reagan as his adman and strategist at the White House) and elaborately distorted polling results,21 they could not increase their hard core support. Six to eight percent of respondents, a very small percentage of the US public, wanted to prohibit abortion under almost all circumstances. Hard core pro-choice advocates, on the other hand, who believed in a woman's right to an abortion under almost all circumstances, hovered at about 32 percent. The remainder of Americans, about 60 percent, were willing to support abortion with some restrictions. After Roe and through most of the 1980s, anti-choice activity could not really budge these figures, and by 1990 support for the "pro-life" movement began to decline.22

Despite this appearance of failure, the anti-abortion movement has seriously eroded the reproductive rights of US women. One of the most significant losses resulted from the 1977 Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal Medicaid funding for abortions, leaving poor women relying on Medicaid with no health insurance for the procedure. In order to receive abortion coverage, such women needed to live in states that fully fund Medicaid abortions with state money. Sixteen states currently use their own money to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions. This number has fluctuated over the years due both to state level court orders and to voluntary policy change. The Hyde Amendment, and its many incarnations, was the most visible of a series of successful anti-abortion initiatives in Congress. Despite prolonged debate over its constitutionality, it ultimately represented a major victory for anti-abortion forces.23 It is a painful reminder for poor women and their allies of the powerful impact that pro-life activity has unleashed at the federal level.

Restrictive anti-abortion laws passed by state legislatures across the country also have slowly and steadily eroded a woman's right to abortion. One restriction, mandatory counseling for a pregnant woman seeking abortion, can create emotional trauma or intimidation. Waiting periods in which women are required to return to an abortion facility after waiting at least one day after their initial appointment place unfair emotional and financial burdens on rural and other women who must leave work and travel for treatment. Parental consent for minors, requiring one or both parents' permission or a judge's decision before an abortion on a minor can take place burdens adolescent women, especially those with potential violence at home, more than adults. In each case, pro-choice activists have had to mount a legal challenge to the state law, pursuing it to state Supreme courts and federal courts. The mixed rulings often resulted in additional loss of abortion access despite substantial pro-choice resources being spent on the defense of a women's right to choose.

As early as the late 1970s, the anti-abortion movement had created "counseling centers" that offered pregnancy tests, then showed women videos and offered "advice" designed to dissuade them from having abortions. Over time, the use of deceptive advertising became a standard feature at these "clinics." Women went to them expecting to receive health care and genuine counseling concerning their crisis pregnancy, only to find that they were exposed to violent and distorted representations of the moral, psychological, and medical effects of abortion.

During the late 1980s and through the 1990s the right has tried to curtail sexuality education in American public schools. At a time of increased awareness and a need for accurate and thorough information about pregnancy, sexual development, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS, a well-funded campaign exists to replace comprehensive sexuality education with abstinence-only curricula in schools.

Any comprehensive sexuality education program stresses abstinence as a necessary part of pregnancy and disease prevention, but supporters of abstinence-only materials insist that their approach is the only effective method. Abstinence-only approaches to sexuality education have been criticized as religious-based and sternly moralistic. In addition, abstinence-only curricula omit essential information needed by young people and distort other material in an attempt to frighten them away from pre-marital sex and abortion. Multiple abstinence-only curricula are now marketed as part of a campaign by various sectors of the right to require their use in public schools.24 Congress has already earmarked $50 million per year through 2002 for the use of abstinence-only curricula, and many state legislatures have taken up bills that help appropriate matching funds and highlight local debate.

This effort may appear to be a series of grassroots efforts in local communities or educational programs based at universities, but local groups are actually coordinated at the national level by large, well-funded groups such as Focus on the Family, Citizens for Excellence in Education, Concerned Women for America, and the Christian Coalition.25 This effort is entirely consistent with the right's larger crusade to control access to information and services related to reproductive rights. Because abstinence-only education focuses on adolescents and children, however, the right has used it as a parental rights issue, thereby claiming the right to control access to information about reproduction, as well as requiring parental consent for contraceptive or abortion services. Proponents of abstinence-only curricula reflect the larger anti-choice movement's strategies: claim moral superiority to your opponents; misrepresent the truth behind your own claims and those of the opposition; and attempt to use legislation and public funds to codify the favored position in law and practice.

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