What if a candidate had an abortion?

Ruth Rosen

November 27, 1991|By Ruth Rosen

IT'S A POLITICAL scandal waiting to happen: Someone will leak the fact that a candidate has had an abortion. Sooner or later, a political candidate or judicial nominee will be pilloried for her "disreputable past."

The irony in this predictable scenario is that it was the women's movement that challenged Americans to reconsider the political dimensions of where to draw the line between private and public life. As American political culture lurches from one moral spasm to another, difficult questions require thoughtful answers.

What aspects of a public servant's past should remain private? What information does the public really need to judge an individual's integrity and character? How can women avoid becoming political casualties when they are the ones who may have had abortions and sexual behavior is judged by a double standard?

These are especially vexing questions because political candidates who came of age during the 1960s are now entering national politics with unconventional pasts that further complicate the public-private quandary. Sometimes it seems that at least one individual must be sacrificed before some offense can be normalized. Douglas H. Ginsburg's use of marijuana, for example, unfairly undermined his nomination to the Supreme Court. Afterward, politicians, left and right, rushed to admit that they, too, had "experimented" with marijuana. Gary Hart's flagrant extramarital affairs -- conduct exacerbated by contemptuous arrogance -- rightly banished him from the political stage. Today, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton just admits to a "rocky marriage."

Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment will make it harder, not easier, for public figures to sexually harass their employees and survive public scrutiny. This is as it should be. Sexual harassment is an abuse of public authority and, at worst, constitutes blackmail.

Not all personal experience, however, should become the object of public scrutiny. Abortion, in my opinion, is a private matter. Many Americans disagree. The political question is: Will a woman who has had an abortion be disqualified from political office or a judicial appointment?

In the midst of the abortion wars, can a woman's reproductive history escape public scrutiny? Opponents of abortion may decide to "out" candidates who have had one. Doctors won't divulge confidential information, but information can leak out in other ways. A former friend may snitch; a once-jilted lover may seek belated revenge.

Will a woman's political future be destroyed if she has had an abortion? It depends. If she is properly repentant and remorseful -- better yet, a born-again pro-lifer -- she may find public redemption. If she had an abortion when she was young or the pregnancy endangered her life, the public may extend absolution. If she later restored her respectability by marrying and bearing children, she may escape political annihilation. But if she was middle-class, college-age and had an abortion so she could complete her education, she will be scapegoated as a selfish feminist who, for the sake of convenience, destroyed a life. If, in addition, she never married -- or is divorced -- her reputation will be shredded by nasty innuendo.

Many women who now aspire to high office entered their formative years when the birth-control pill decreased fears of pregnancy and enhanced women's sexual freedom. Some cohabited before marrying; some never married. Some led a life best characterized as serial monogamy. Some chose to bear children alone. Many had abortions, both illegal and legal.

As growing numbers of women seek high political office, they will have to tread cautiously over sexual minefields. Not all women enter the national spotlight with Anita Hill's religious and social rectitude.

The danger is that the public will sacrifice one female candidate to the abortion wars or the double standard before accepting the reality of women's lives. Women should wage an immediate pre-emptive counteroffensive. We must publicize the truth about women's lives. Even more, we must insist that a woman -- like a man -- be judged by her character and contributions, not her sexual or reproductive history.

Ruth Rosen is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis. She is writing a history of feminism.

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