Faye Wattleton: A compelling voice for abortion rights

October 02, 1990|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

FAYE WATTLETON doesn't see herself as the reincarnation of Margaret Sanger, the founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, arrested in 1916 for running a birth control clinic.

Nevertheless, Wattleton, the current PPFA president and the first woman since Sanger to hold that title, feels a strong kinship with her early predecessor.

On the opening day of a Supreme Court term that will include the examination of two key reproductive rights cases, and the day before the likely Senate confirmation of David H. Souter -- who has remained silent on his abortion views -- to the nation's highest court, Wattleton sees history repeating itself. "I just think it is ironic we are fighting the same battles over and over again," she says.

Wattleton was in Baltimore yesterday to participate in a Crisis in Contraception conference, hosted by the state and national Planned Parenthood offices, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and School of Hygiene and Public Health. Last night, Wattleton also addressed Planned Parenthood of Maryland's annual meeting.

Statuesque, steely, articulate, Wattleton cuts a striking and credible figure as one of this country's most ubiquitous advocates for abortion rights.

But when the former nurse became PPFA president 12 years ago, after a swift rise through local ranks, Wattleton had no premonition that Roe vs. Wade would soon be threatened. The 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing abortion as a right protected under the Constitution, as well as routine federal funding of family planning clinics and advancing contraceptive technology were by then comfortable givens in American

society.

Then came the rise of the right-to-life forces, a Supreme Court dominated by Ronald Reagan appointees, and federal policies that restricted grants to international and national family planning clinics that offered abortions.

"What these times show us," Wattleton says, "[is that] you just simply cannot let down. There is much to do, and always there are those who want to pull you back, particularly people who want to pull you back on sexuality issues."

As Roe vs. Wade looked less and less like a sure thing, PPFA, under Wattleton's leadership, began to steer away from its mainstream reputation as a health-care organization, encountering a certain amount of criticism and defections from staff and supporters. Plunging into the abortion rights battle, PPFA joined forces with the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League and other like-minded groups.

Surrounded by handlers and at times guards -- there have been death threats -- Wattleton's every working moment is carefully orchestrated. She toils with the zeal of a missionary, which her mother, a fundamentalist preacher, had hoped she would become. Though Wattleton, 46, comes across as an arch-feminist, her message is essentially pro-family and pro-privacy, issues that fall in the philosophical domain of conservatives as well.

As a nursing student at Columbia University, Wattleton saw a woman die of a botched abortion. She came to understand that the fight for safe and legal abortions was also about the fight against racism, sexism and poverty. Last year, after the Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services decision handing states the right to limit abortions, Wattleton told a crowd on the Supreme Court steps, "This decision once more slaps poor women in the face and says you do not have constitutional protections if your state sees fit to restrict them and you do not have the resources to circumvent those restrictions."

In September, Wattleton urged the Senate Judiciary Committee

to reject Souter's nomination to the Supreme Court because he would not reveal his sentiments on abortion. "The health and lives of millions of American women, for generations to come, may depend on where David Souter stands," Wattleton told the committee.

She and other abortion rights leaders encountered criticism from members of their own camp, including Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., a Planned Parenthood dues payer, who warned that the next nominee could be far worse than Souter.

In response to the insinuation that support of Souter would b the pragmatic thing to do, Wattleton likens Souter's silence to "someone coming to the judiciary and saying, 'well I haven't made up my mind on the questions of the separation of church and state,' or 'No, I'm not quite sure about whether there should be serious limitations on freedom of speech' . . . It's because we don't really place these issues, women's issues, at the same level of fundamental value as other issues [that if revoked] we would never tolerate for a moment. That we say it's more pragmatic to accept this, because it could be worse: What does that say about us in terms about what we're willing to give up?"

The United States must re-educate itself before it can correct its confusion about sex (a recent national survey reported widespread ignorance on basic questions about sexuality), the crises of sexually transmitted diseases, and a soaring birthrate among poor, young women, Wattleton says. "That means a very radical change in the way we see ourselves, but also in the way we see our children and their sexual development. The lack of comfort with sexual matters on the one hand, the spread of explicitly sexual materials and ideas at the same time we repress knowledge and information, I'm sure, from some one's point of view of looking at us from afar, is peculiar indeed," Wattleton says. "But I think it really does reflect the vestiges of our puritanical traditions, which were by the way, pretty hypocritical even back then . . . We have a tragic record to show for it."

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