Losing the Right to Choose

The Republicans in congress wage war on abortion

Tens of thousands of demonstrators gather at the National Mall to protest policies of the 104th US Congress regarding poor women, abortion, violence against women anad other women's issue in Washington, DC on April 9th, 1995. Credit: JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images

VIKI WILSON IS A REGISTERED nurse; her husband, Bill, is an emergency-room physician. Last year, four weeks before Wilson's due date, her doctor discovered that roughly two-thirds of her future daughter's brain had been formed on the outside of her skull. The baby, who was expected on Mother's Day, would almost certainly not survive.

After consulting with three specialists in Fresno, Calif., Wilson and her husband opted for an unusual procedure called an intact D and E. Pioneered by Dr. James McMahon, who performed it, the procedure terminates the fetus inside the womb through a series of injections and then delivers it intact, although the brain is suctioned out to make delivery easier. The procedure, which accounts for less than four one-hundredths of 1 percent of all abortions performed in America, has proved to be one of the safest available for difficult abortions. Had Wilson decided to induce labor, for instance, she would have risked uterine damage, potential hemorrhaging, even her life. This process, explains Wilson, 39, allowed her and her family to see and hold the dead child, and to properly grieve over her in order "to have a healthy recovery."

At a recent Capitol Hill hearing, says Wilson, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., called her an "exterminator." Charles Canady, R-Fla., who is sponsoring a bill to criminalize the procedure that opponents have labeled brain sucking, said she was unfit to be called a mother. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., said that she was part of some "perverted cult." Wilson, who has two children and is now pregnant again, was clearly shaken by the experience. "In such an intimate personal tragedy," she says, "I don't think the federal government should be in the medical conference room with the experts and my family. We are the ones who have to live with this, not the government."

The abortion issue is heating up again. Led by a radicalized class of freshman Republicans, the House of Representatives has begun to pass a series of bills that would severely limit a woman's right to choose to have an abortion – without overtly calling into question the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling. Republicans know they have no hope of passing a constitutional amendment overturning Roe vs. Wade, as their party platform instructs them to do. So, like the Republican assault on environmental, health and safety protections earlier this summer, the pro-life strategy calls for attacks on the most vulnerable and controversial aspects of a generally popular cause while eschewing a public debate on the issue itself.

The Republican strategy points to a crucial breakdown in the American political system. The abortion issue cannot be decided with typical democratic give-and-take. Neither side has any room for compromise once the essential question is broached. Either abortion is murder, or it isn't. Either a woman's right to control her own body is fundamental, or it isn't. As medical technology advances, the courts are waging a losing battle to find a morally and intellectually coherent answer to the question of when life begins. So public debate is reduced to the screeching of nasty epithets while actual public policy is determined by political calculation and parliamentary maneuvering.

The Republican strategy also presents Democrats and, particularly, the Clinton administration, with a tempting, though disturbing, dilemma. The more successful congressional Republicans are at threatening American women's right to choose, the more credible will be Democratic attempts to paint their opponents as heartless ideological fanatics in 1996. Indeed, abortion may prove to be the most powerful weapon in the Clinton campaign's arsenal.

Meanwhile, as abortion doctors become targets for assassination and family-planning clinics for arson, a safe abortion is becoming more and more difficult to secure in America. Already, an astonishing 83 percent of the nation's counties have no abortion provider at all, according to Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. The House of Representatives recently passed a welfare-reform bill that contains an "illegitimacy ratio," which rewards states for making abortion services more difficult and potentially dangerous to obtain. For the poor, the geographically isolated and those outside the health-care system, therefore, abortion rights are rapidly becoming a matter of theory rather than practice.

The Republican-sponsored bills grew out of a series of strategy meetings between Republican representatives and lobbyists from the Christian Coalition and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference. Broadly speaking, the bills fall into four categories.

First and foremost, legislators hope to reverse a series of pro-choice executive orders issued by the Clinton administration upon his taking office in 1993, along with those measures passed by the pro-choice 103rd Congress. Among these are bills that have already passed the House, such as one that would restrict the rights of women to have abortions performed on military bases overseas, even if they pay for the procedure themselves; deny any U.S. money to any international agency that provides abortion counseling, even if no U.S. funds were used for that purpose; and deny federal funds to women in prison who seek abortions. A bill to bar the National Institutes of Health from using human embryos for experimental purposes has been introduced, while one to prevent the marketing of the French abortion pill, RU-486, is being contemplated.

Second, the Republicans want to get the federal government out of the business of paying for abortion except in those cases where the mother's life is threatened. The most prominent of these bills would discontinue the federal requirement that Medicaid pay for poor women to have abortions in cases of rape or incest. Another bill, approved by the House in July, would strike all abortion coverage from federal employee-health-care plans.

A third set of bills is designed to shut down federal aid to family-planning facilities that in any way counsel women regarding their right to choose. The famous gag rule, which proscribed counselors at federally funded health clinics from even mentioning abortion, is on the table again, though so far it has not been reintroduced. Title X money, however, which provides reproductive-health-care services to poor women under the Public Health Service Act, could be zeroed out.

The final broad category seeks by legislative fiat to reframe medical practices and medical ethics in this country. Canady's bill, the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, would for the first time since Roe vs. Wade prescribe criminal penalties for doctors who perform the late-term-pregnancy abortion procedure undergone by Viki Wilson. A second bill would undermine the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education's February 1995 decision to require training in abortion procedures for all OB-GYN medical residents who have no religious or moral objection to the process. The council's decision was a response to a growing shortage of doctors willing and able to perform abortions in America. The bill, however, would permit institutions that are not accredited because of the abortion provision to still receive federal funds. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, has compared the requirement to the admission code "of certain urban youth gangs: Before you can join the club, you have to snuff somebody."

Those bills that haven't already passed are expected to do so in the House of Representatives, where even the most optimistic pro-choice advocates admit that the other side has a working majority. "We don't have the votes to beat any of these," Planned Parenthood's vice president for public policy, Ann Lewis, mournfully concedes. "They were stealth candidates; they are now a stealth air force."

The fate of the legislation will not be determined until it reaches the Senate and is sent on to the White House for the president's signature. Here, matters become considerably more complicated.

The pro-life forces are estimated to have approximately 45 firm votes on their side. The balance of power lies with moderate Republican senators like William Cohen of Maine, John Chafee of Rhode Island and Bob Packwood of Oregon. Ironically, the man upon whom pro-choice forces will be most dependent is the same senator who so infuriated them with his mean-spirited and condescending grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings: Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Specter, whose long-shot presidential candidacy is based on fighting the influence of the Christian right in the Republican Party, heads up the all-important labor and health-services subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, from which much of this legislation must ultimately emerge.

If Republican moderates do decide to delay or oppose these bills, they will have formidable allies in the five female Democratic senators for whom abortion rights are an abiding passion. When, earlier this year, Sen. J. James Exon, D-Neb., proposed removing rape and incest from mandatory Medicaid abortion coverage, a threatened filibuster by California's Barbara Boxer and Maryland's Barbara Mikulski made him think better of the idea. Patty Murray of Washington is also said to be ready to go. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts also will be a dependable supporter when the Senate deals with most of these measures in September, after the summer recess.

Ultimately, this issue, which so intimately affects the lives of so many Americans, turns on parliamentary tactics. Neither side has any new arguments that might change anyone's mind on the subject. The "abortion is murder" side is not impressed by the arguments put forth by right-to-privacy advocates, and vice versa. Thus the bills will become law only if their supporters are capable – by manipulating the legislative process – of forcing President Clinton to sign them. (Pro-lifers do not have sufficient strength in either house to override a presidential veto.)

Pro-choice advocates are the one liberal constituent group that has no complaints of betrayal by this president. "He has stood very firm so far," says Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder. The Republican strategy, therefore, will be to try to attach as many of these bills as possible to critical appropriations bills so that the president risks blame for causing governmental chaos if he decides to veto them. The bill that allows states to deny Medicaid payments for abortions in the case of rape and incest is currently part of a larger measure to fund labor, health and education programs. Senior White House officials insist that this is one bill Clinton will not let pass, but that may be due to its cuts in education and job training as much as its anti-abortion provisions. More worrisome, the bill prohibiting abortions on military bases is currently attached to the Department of Defense appropriations bill. While Clinton has spoken out against the measure, he is unlikely to stop all funding of the military over the issue.

The Republican tactics, Schroeder says, put her president in "a real pickle." Ideally, the pro-choice side would like to see these bills come to the president as stand-alone propositions so he can veto them without further reverberations. Canady's partial-birth abortion prohibition will probably come up this way. Canady says he "would not be surprised if Clinton vetoes" his bill but is nevertheless "cautiously optimistic." White House officials say it is too early to know whether Clinton will wield his veto, though they do have doubts about the bill's constitutionality. (According to the Supreme Court's decision in Roe vs. Wade, while women do have a constitutional right to choose abortion, states can restrict that right at the point of fetal viability, judged to be between 24 and 28 weeks of gestational age. States may ban abortion entirely after viability, except in cases where it is necessary to preserve the mother's life.)

While Clinton is going to have to sign into law a bunch of measures that he and his allies abhor, in the context of 1996 electoral politics, the White House is all smiles. Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" barely mentions abortion for a reason. Although no one professes to be in favor of more abortions, the right to choose remains extremely popular with Americans and defeated the pro-life position in recent polls by a margin of 4-to-1. This may account for the fact that while Gingrich is going along with the pro-lifers, he is uncharacteristically reticent about making any headlines over the issue or identifying himself too closely with its most vituperative rhetoric.

It is no secret in Washington that pollster Dick Morris, the man behind almost all of Bill Clinton's curtains these days, has conceived a re-election strategy that calls on the president to neutralize the Republicans by adopting much of their economic plan while portraying their views on social issues as outside the American mainstream. Clinton has already employed this tactic, for instance, in regard to Republican efforts to repeal the ban on assault weapons. With the prayer in school issue neutralized by a series of concessions, the right to choose becomes the starkest contrast between the two parties – perhaps the single most important issue to a Clinton victory.

The Republicans' abortion strategy allows the president to describe his opponents as being in the grip of the party's most extreme elements. Following the defeat of Dr. Henry Foster as the nation's next surgeon general due to his having performed 39 abortions during a period of 38 years, Clinton accused the Republicans of caving in to members of the "extreme right wing," who will "stop at nothing to get their way." He then declared that "the Republican leaders in Congress have given them the keys to the store" and are likely in the future to "vote for any bill, oppose any nomination, allow any intrusion into people's lives if they get orders to do so from these groups."

According to one White House strategist, "Most Americans prefer the settled consensus on abortion...safe, legal and rare.... Now that the Republicans are running the show and playing to the radical-right zealots both in and out of Congress, we can expect the moderate voters who deserted us in 1994 to come back." For this reason, the Clinton campaign should pay the Republican freshmen to keep talking.

Some Republicans see the danger ahead. New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert says the anti-choice position violates "the classical conservative position," which would be "for the government to take a hands-off position rather than ... dictating what a woman can do." Rep. John Porter, a nine-term Republican from Illinois who has faced two recent primary challenges, says he doesn't "think that the leadership recognizes what I see as the lesson of 1992. We were seen as a narrow party that had a saliva test for being a member, and millions of men and women felt excluded. If we send that message from San Diego in 1996, we are destined to lose."

But Sen. Bob Dole and Co. are trapped at the moment. In 1994, self-described religious conservatives dominated the Republican primary in some states. If Dole wavers for so much as a nanosecond from his anti-abortion position, he will risk the entire nomination.

Neither the issue nor the pro-lifers can be expected to disappear. Ralph Reed, who heads up the Christian Coalition for Pat Robertson, says he is eager to avoid the mistake of "overplaying [his] hand with a pro-life Congress." Reed presents the coalition's agenda as the soul of moderation; of his "Contract With the American Family" he says, "These are the 10 suggestions – they're not the Ten Commandments.... We issue no ultimatums, and we make no demands of either party." But other Christian lobbying groups have been critical of Reed for giving up too easily. Tom Kilgannon, a spokesman for the Christian Action Network, says he supported the proposal of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, even though he knew it would likely lose. "We have never debated when life begins and what rights should be accorded to the unborn child," he says. "I think a debate would go a long way toward reducing the number of abortions in America." Kilgannon would prefer to see the movement fight for a constitutional ban on all abortions – and then work backward.

The failure of the political and legal system has resonated on the movement's radical fringe in the form of bombings at medical clinics and the premeditated murders of doctors. By Planned Parenthood's count, there have been 169 cases of arson and bomb attacks on women's health centers since 1982. Some anti-abortion leaders are reportedly calling for forming armed militias, while paramilitary groups are using anti-abortion rhetoric to whip up their members.

Whether the restrictions currently before Congress would reduce the number of abortions in America, as Republicans claim, or simply send poor and minority women on "the road to the back alley," as the title of a National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League publication predicts, is not an issue Congress is likely to settle any time soon. Not so long, at least, as the Republican Party's theme song regarding the issue remains "Onward Christian Soldiers."