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

In the late 1990s, elements of the anti-abortion movement began to cultivate coalitions by linking issues with other segments of the right -- a strategy with the potential to re-expand the movement's ranks. They established new organizational associations with right-wing groups involved in immigration and environmental work, welfare "reform" advocates, population control, and reproductive services other than abortion, such as sterilization and contraception.

Another approach to recruiting new pro-life footsoldiers has been to form constituency groups and offer them a reason to organize around pro-life issues. For instance, anti-choice forces have cultivated new supporters among young people, including young women. A rash of youth-oriented web sites capitalizes on the ability of youth to navigate cyberspace and to absorb information directed at them. Since many of these sites, like other right-wing sites, are filled with misinformation and phony "research," they mold public opinion without the check of being held to any standard of accuracy.29

College pro-life groups appear on many campuses these days, not just at conservative Christian campuses. Even when their approach appears to be secular, inclusive and open-minded, they often are heavily influenced by Christian Right rhetoric. The Cornell Coalition for Life, for example, describes itself by using the three standard issues linked by anti-abortion groups -- abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide:

The Cornell Coalition for Life stresses an inclusive, non-partisan, and non-religious approach in advancing the pro-life cause. Students, faculty, and local residents with a wide diversity of backgrounds and opinions unite to educate our peers about the tragedies of abortion, euthanasia, and infanticide in the Cornell community and in society at large.30

While Mark Crutcher's campaign to stigmatize abortion with medical students and young doctors may seem extreme and crude to some, there are other attempts to organize medical professionals. These groups include Christian Medical and Dental Society, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, the Catholic Medical Association, National Association of Pro-Life Nurses, Physicians Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT), the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and Pharmacists for Life. Each has its own website and is linked to other pro-life sites.

The anti-abortion movement has found itself with some seemingly liberal or progressive groups in coalition. The Seamless Garment Network, a coalition of 140 member groups, incorporates opposition to war, racism, capital punishment, euthanasia and abortion under "a consistent ethic of life" as a way to bear witness to "protecting the unprotected" and welcomes anyone willing to work on "all or some of these issues."31 Member groups range from the Catholic Workers to Feminists for Life. This network attracts not only people from communities of faith, but secular social conservatives and libertarians land here as well.

Abortion opponents have both used and discredited medicine and science in their discussion of abortion, depending on what arguments best suit their purposes at the time. For instance, some groups have accused pro-choice activists of sanitizing the abortion procedure by using medical and scientific terms, which they say, obscured what was really happening. In their view, "terminating a pregnancy" is actually "baby killing." More recently others have used scientific or pseudo-scientific terminology to add to their credibility, warning that abortion is hazardous to a woman's health and linking it to infections, breast cancer and psychological trauma. 32 These allegations, while impressive in their quantity, have no basis in fact.

Several anti-abortion organizations were created in the early 1990s to exploit the fear that abortion is traumatic. These groups appeal to women who are either conflicted about their own past abortions or are denied access to accurate information about abortion procedures. This anti-choice activism is sympathetic to women while it reinforces an image of women as victims of an uncaring medical establishment.

Organizations such as the Catholic Church's Project Rachel, David Reardon's Elliott Institute and the National Right to Life Committee function as points of entry for many women into the anti-abortion movement and eventually into related political movements. They highlight the difference between single-issue, pro-life forces and the larger right. For pro-life advocates who work only to prohibit abortion, the issue is the chance to regulate women's lives in order to maintain a social system consistent with religious principles. In this framework, because abortion is the corrupting influence that erodes "family values," it is their primary enemy. For others, the goal is control of the political system with the power to implement a full agenda of conservative issues. For these activists, abortion has been the key issue to mobilize large numbers of people for broader goals.

Although his early activism focused on abortion, Operation Rescue's Randall Terry's broader strategy is revealed in a quote from the 1996 PBS Series on the Religious Right, "With God on Our Side."

From the beginning when I founded Operation Rescue, the vision was not solely to end child-killing; the vision was to recapture the power bases of America, for child-killing to be the first domino, if you will, to fall in a series of dominoes. My feeling was, and still is, once we mobilize the momentum, the manpower, the money, and all that goes with that to make child-killing illegal, we will have sufficient moral authority and moral force and momentum to get the homosexual movement back in the closet, to get the condom pushers in our schools to be back on the fringes of society where they belong where women are treated with dignity, not as Playboy bunnies, etc., etc. We want to recapture the country, because right now the country's power bases are in the hands of a very determined, very evil elite who are selling us a bill of goods. They call it good but it truly is evil. They say, "Here, it's sweet," but in reality it's bitter. It's wormwood and gall.33

Although Catholic teachings and Protestant fundamentalist beliefs are the ideological bedrock of the anti-abortion movement's arguments, certain groups like the National Right to Life Committee avoid using language that is too specifically religious as a way to broaden their appeal. The NRLC, for instance, now uses primarily legal terminology, which coordinates well with their mostly legislative agenda. Originally a Catholic organization, the NRLC chose a mainstream pro-life niche for itself early on in the abortion debates, and today few remember its history.

The controversy surrounding efforts to outlaw "partial-birth abortion", as it is called by its opponents, is an example of how the Right uses an issue to its advantage. Late-term abortion emerged as a widely debated topic in the mid 1990s, and the Right has successfully kept it active on state and federal legislative agendas ever since. At first, the right's activism appeared to be focused on opposition to a particular procedure, known medically as Dilation and Extraction (D&X ). But as the debates have worn on, it has become clear that the focus on late-term abortion is part of the overall strategy to abolish all legal abortions.

Late-term abortion is an uncommon medical procedure done in the third trimester. When the right uses the carefully chosen term "partial-birth abortion," it plays to the ardent emotions of both the pro- and anti-choice forces as well as to the substantial group of Americans in the "middle" who support a woman's right to choose but are vulnerable to arguments that would justify certain restrictions. The phrase "partial-birth abortion" is a political, not a medical, description of the procedure, and so it has been necessary to define it when creating legislation. Although the meaning and intent of the term have been the focus of much debate, the widespread use of the term "partial-birth abortion" in the media and by the public is an indication of the success of the right in controlling how the topic is discussed.

Legislation was first introduced in Congress in 1995 as a bill to ban "partial-birth abortions." Congress has considered and even passed similar laws that so far have been blocked by Presidential vetoes based on the lack of an exception for the health of the woman. Reviewing the language of the bills helped legal analysts see that the wording of these bills and their many state counterparts was vague enough to outlaw virtually all abortions. In addition to D&X, the more common procedure, D&E, or Dilation and Evacuation, often done in the second trimester of pregnancy, would be outlawed as well. Nevertheless, laws banning "partial-birth abortions" have been passed in over 30 states. Pro-choice advocates have been kept busy challenging the constitutionality of these laws. In fact, requiring pro-choice organizations to tie up their resources on litigation has become a standard tactic of the Right. Because federal appeals courts have delivered conflicting decisions about these state laws, the US Supreme Court will rule on the Nebraska "partial-birth abortion" law in Carhart v. Stenberg at the 2000 session. This will be the first major abortion ruling since 1992. It is evidence of the speed and effectiveness of the right's infrastructure that propelled the issue to prominence in such a short time.

Early on in the debates, anti-abortion strategists claimed moral superiority in opposing late-term abortions. In a 1995 radio show, James Dobson referred to the procedure as a "Nazi era experimentation," where doctors "suck the brain matter out of a living, viable baby for use in medical experiments," eliciting images of eugenics and demented physicians. Anti-abortion organizations such as NRLC began publishing drawings of the procedure that were intended to shock viewers into outrage while insisting that the images were medically accurate. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), another early opponent, described D & E as, "infanticide." This claim to moral superiority was further aided by the 1997 admission by Ron Fitzsimmons, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, that he had publicly underestimated the number of late-term abortions performed in this country.

By focusing on abortion providers' guilt, anti-choice forces omit any reference to the women who undergo the procedure-their circumstances or their needs. In addition to women who are at high health risk in their pregnancies, and older women for whom potential birth defects are a pressing issue, the women who choose late-term abortion are overwhelmingly less educated about their health needs, more often impoverished and more often women of color. Removing late-term abortion from its medical and social context and misrepresenting and sensationalizing its purpose and need are examples of how the Right has used late-term abortion and abortion in general for its own political ends.

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