Friday, September 08, 2006

South Dakota Law New Chapter in Story of Childbearing Rights

The biggest news about the sweeping new South Dakota law that will ban all abortions except to save the woman's life—no exceptions to preserve her health or for rape or incest--is that it is not such big news, It is in fact a news story that has been repeated over and over for more than a generation. But this time the story might well be headed for a disastrously different ending.

The South Dakota abortion ban, which passed the state legislature Feb.22 and was signed by Governor Mike Rounds (R), will join over a dozen state bans already on the books. It’s a head-on challenge to Roe v Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Most of the outright abortion bans predate Roe, or passed soon after it. None can be enforced now because Roe is federal precedent that applies to all states.

Roe galvanized those who oppose a woman's right to choose about childbearing, and their immediate post-Roe response was to seek sweeping abortion bans. But they lost most of those battles, some by ballot initiative, some by legislative action or inaction, most by court rulings. They learned from their defeats and began to seek incremental victories: eliminating Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women, requiring minors to get parental consent prior to obtaining an abortion, mandatory delays, and state-written “counseling” aimed at promoting childbirth over abortion.

Still, Roe’s central tenets of a right to privacy in making childbearing decisions--the same as those in Griswold v Connecticut in1965 that gave Americans the right to obtain birth control--and the primacy of protecting women’s health have stood the test of time--thus far.

According to Eve Gartner, senior litigator for Planned Parenthood Federation of America whose Minnesota/North Dakota/South Dakota affiliate is the only abortion provider in the state, the ban will be challenged even before it is slated to go into effect July 1. There is a strong likelihood of success in the lower federal court. So far, this is a familiar story.

Three distinct differences today: the Court, the role of Congress, and the right's agenda

What’s most different now is the Supreme Court.

Roe was decided 7-2. The most recent rulings on abortion have been 5-4, with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor casting the pivotal 5th vote and often the person who cobbled together that razor-slim majority within a sharply divided Court. In between came numerous rulings that so pushed back the protections of Roe that some believe Roe is already a fragile shell.

The Republican right’s endgame of capturing the Supreme Court was won when Samuel Alito took the seat vacated by O’Connor. Alito authored the incremental strategy of overturning Roe restriction by restriction when he was an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Reagan administration.

Now Alito will be the pivotal vote on those very cases when they come before the Court. The South Dakota law could be the one that finally fells Roe after years of chipping away at it. Already, the Alito Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the federal abortion ban, giving it one more opportunity to roll back Roe and prepare the way for its demise. And an anonymous donor has offered to $1,000,000 to fund South Dakota’s legal challenge to Roe.

South Dakota is just one of the 30 states which “What if Roe Fell”, an analysis published in September, 2004, by the pro-choice Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) predicts would either reinstate their old laws banning abortion or move swiftly to pass new bans if Roe were overturned.

But state-by-state analysis might become moot. Another big difference from the pre-Roe era is that Congress is in the act now, passing federal laws restricting abortion in various ways but applying in all states. And Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) has already said he will move to make it a crime to cross state lines for an abortion if it is illegal in your state, in the event Roe is overturned.

Finally, with the FDA dragging its heels on approving over-the-counter sales of the morning after contraceptive called Plan B, half a billion dollars a year spent on abstinence-only sex education programs while family planning services are underfunded and gagged, and a growing number of pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions, it is increasingly clear that much more than abortion is at risk. Overturning Roe would pull the thread that unravels the entire fabric of reproductive justice that began even before the Griswold birth control decision. That includes the right to privacy, the right to make our own childbearing decisions—to bear or beget, to use birth control or not, to have access to medically accurate sexual health information and services that are informed by science and not ideology.

The saga continues

But even then the end of this story will not have been written. The new South Dakota law could become a wake-up call to that 66 % of Americans who consistently say Roe v Wade should remain the law of the land. Most agree with Planned Parenthood’s Gartner when she says, “It would be a devastating day for women if they are no longer able to make intimate, personal decisions on their own.”

If Roe is overturned, there could be a pro-choice backlash equal to the anti-choice backlash after Roe. The midterm elections in 2006 and the presidential election in 2008 bring could bring about yet another twist to the plot of this seemingly unending story.

©Gloria Feldt 2006 9177155107
Gloria Feldt is the author of The War on Choice: the right-wing attack on women’s rights and how to fight back, and was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 2006-2005.

Originally Published on

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bang Those Pots and Keep This Movement Moving

Today is March 8, International Women's Day 2006. But before getting into that, let's think back to September 1995.

Spin the globe and stop the world on China.
It's the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, where hugely ambitious and thrilling goals were set for improving the lives of women, and by extension their families and the world.

The official conference was in Beijing, but the much larger convocation of activists from nongovernmental organizations was literally stuck in the mud in Huairu, a suburb an hour's drive from the city.

Thousands of us had arrived early on the morning of Sept. 6, to stand packed together under a roof of brightly colored umbrellas, jockeying for the few hundred seats inside the auditorium where then first lady of the United States Hillary Clinton was slated to give a speech.

I was fortunate not only to get inside but to get a seat. The program was running late; Hillary was running even later and the crowd was getting restive. Just as it seemed a revolt might be brewing, Shirley May Springer Stanton, the cultural coordinator of the conference, walked onto the stage and began to sing a capella, ever so softly: "Gonna keep on moving forward. Never turning back, never turning back."

Then she asked the audience to join her. Pretty soon the house was rocking. By the time the first lady arrived and gave her brilliant "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights" speech, it truly felt like the global movement for women's rights was unstoppable. It was, you might say, an ovular moment.

Other Countries Take the Lead

Here in the United States, that moment can seem long ago when we consider our administration's federal budget and see how it slashes funding for international family planning services that could reduce the millions of unsafe abortions and risky pregnancies that cause 500,000 unnecessary deaths each year globally.

But the U.S. women's movement can take inspiration from working in sisterhood with women from around the globe. While the United States fails to meet its commitments to the global public-health community, many developing countries are funding these essential women's health services beyond all expectations and the European nations step in to fill much of the void left by America's abdication of leadership.

Women's development projects are also fueling economic growth around the world while bringing greater equality to the women in their societies. Sex trafficking and other acts of violence against women, long merely routine facts of life for women, are becoming subjects of international media attention and human rights action. And female heads of state are being elected in Europe, Africa and Latin America this year.

No movement for social justice moves forward without struggle, nor does forward movement necessarily go in a straight line. Yet, the movement for women's liberation in the U.S. seems to be the only one about which it can be said with impunity, "Enough now, we must go backward."

In her 2004 book "The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women's Rights in America," author and lawyer Debran Rowland delineates in crushing detail "cycles of advances and digressions characterizing women's rights in America."

Throughout these cycles, the rhetoric of opposition to the women's movement has been consistently pejorative. "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote," President Grover Cleveland said, arguing against the suffrage movement prior to 1920.

Vilifying the Movement

Today, televangelist and political power broker Rev. Pat Robertson calls feminism a "socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

In the pressure cooker of such vilification and political retribution, U.S. women's rights activists sometimes succumb to squabbling about strategy. Instead of pushing ahead with passionate commitment, we debate the merits of retreat, reframing and retrenchment.

A prime example: John Kerry failed to articulate his own passionate commitment to women's rights during the 2004 presidential campaign. After his defeat, Sen. Hillary Clinton--the inspirational speaker at the Beijing meeting--chided New York reproductive health care providers, telling the very people who invented prevention--to change their agenda to prevention.

"The best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

(Well, yes, Hillary, that's why providers asked you to co-sponsor the Prevention First Act, which calls for increased funding for family planning services and access to emergency contraception that could prevent half of all abortions. You did and thanks for that, but now, how about giving the bill another big political push?)

Similarly, reproductive rights advocate Alex Sanger, in a Women's eNews article last month, charged feminists with having too narrow an agenda. To muster political clout in the next election, he said, we have to broaden our message to policies that affect entire families.

In truth the feminist movement--not the anti-feminists--has always advocated for the full panoply of just social policies from child care to pay equity and universal access to quality health care.

The Agenda is Not the Problem

The problem is not the feminist agenda. The problem is that all of us who support it need the political will, courage, commitment, stamina and a never-ending creation of inspiring initiatives that touch real people's lives. A movement, after all, has to move.

We who call ourselves feminists must remember, proudly, that we have changed the world, much for the better in terms of justice and equality. That's exactly what scares our adversaries so much.

A group of African women at the Beijing conference told a story about how they stamped out spousal abuse in their village. It bears repeating in this muffled era for women's rights activism.

The women said they banded together, took their cooking pots and took up positions outside of the homes of men who had committed violent acts against their wives. They banged on those pots so loudly that the whole neighborhood came out and took note of them and the men agreed to change their behavior.

Each country today has different reasons to bang their pots on this International Women's Day 2006. But the refrain for all of us who aspire to global justice for women is the same.

"Gonna raise our voices boldly, Never turning back. Gotta keep on moving forward, Never turning back, Never turning back."

So the Hammer Finally Nailed Himself

So the Hammer finally nailed himself.

I am so disappointed. It would have been much more fun to defeat Tom DeLay fair and square at the ballot box in November.

I was prepared to walk door-to-door in the district (my son, daughter-in-law, and two grandsons who deserve better representation live there). A stunning election defeat for Tom DeLay would show other zealous right-wing politicians that the majority of Americans--when you can get their attention away from trying to make a living and taking care of their families--really are in favor of basic democratic principles and--dare I say--ethical government. They really do believe in liberty and justice for all, in freedom of religion and speech, and in respecting the fundamental rights of others. They want to live and let live, not by the hammer but by common decency and fairness. Many of them were outraged when he violated the medical privacy of Terry Schiavo’s family who were faced with heartrending decisions. Others were shocked by his probable brush with corruption in his dealings with lobbyists. Everyone should be furious about how his long arm reached from Congress into the state redistricting process and defeated those with whom he disagreed, not at the ballot box but in the backrooms.

DeLay fell prey to his own arrogant quest for power over others when he should have been focusing on how he could use his position of public trust to improve the lives of the people he supposedly served. You have to admire and learn from his vision and tenaciousness, while reviling his raw use of power in the service of avarice, personal aggrandizement, and fundamentalist screed.

So another corrupt politician bites the dust. But now, while we do have the voters' attention, let's all take all this little civics lesson to heart. Politics is only a crooked and cynical game when we let the crooks and cynics hold the keys to the halls of government.

Go to your next precinct meeting, people. Practice democracy 101. Get registered to vote if you're not already. Vote every time and take your friends and family with you. Go to town halls to meet candidates and elected officials in person. Scour politician's websites and ask them questions. Check their voting records. Organize voters who share your values to get a meeting with candidates prior to elections when they are most likely to spend the time with you and keep in touch after their elections so they know they are accountable. And yes, write a check now and then to candidates you support. It does take money and lots of it to run a campaign. In today’s media-saturated world, candidates have to be able to get their message out to voters. We want to make it possible for people who aren’t rich or simply power mad to run for office. And hold the media accountable too, for representing the candidates and the issues accurately.

When we as citizens fail to do these things, we're the ones who get hammered. That's just the way it is in a democracy, like it or not.

© Gloria Feldt 2006