The Winner: Right to Choose

SARA ENGRAM

November 08, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

Aweek ago, polls showed such a high number of undecided voters on Question 6, Maryland's abortion law, that supporters of the measure expected a long night of nail-biting on Tuesday.

Instead, the measure cruised to victory with 61 percent of the vote.

It was that kind of day last Tuesday for abortion rights. After 12 years of one exhausting fight after another, Election Day 1992 changed the landscape for supporters of reproductive freedom.

Only two abortion measures were on state ballots -- Question 6 in Maryland and an Arizona initiative that would have outlawed virtually all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother -- and choice prevailed each time. But the biggest effect will come from the change in administrations.

For the next four years at least, appointments to the Supreme Court will be made by a president committed to reproductive freedom, and regardless of whether he in fact places an abortion "litmus test" on his appointments, they are likely to be far more supportive of privacy rights than Justice Antonin Scalia or Justice Clarence Thomas.

Even though President-elect Clinton drew some deserved criticism during his campaign for announcing such a litmus test, the fact is that throughout the Reagan-Bush years abortion has colored appointments and policies in ways that have damaged women and even cost lives around the world. Thanks to the Clinton victory, we can look forward to an end to some of the results of the Reagan-Bush anti-abortion litmus test:

* On Tuesday, while Americans were voting to end the Reagan-Bush era, a federal appeals court was invalidating the Bush administration's ban on abortion counseling at federally financed family planning clinics. Since the Clinton administration assuredly will not appeal this regulation to the Supreme Court, that ruling puts an end to this misguided attempt to censor information given to pregnant women.

* Look for the Clinton administration to reverse a ban on federally funded research using fetal tissue. President Bush's decision to scuttle a compromise on this issue disappointed members of Congress on both sides of the abortion issue.

* With a president committed to reproductive freedom, American women can look forward to new options for controlling fertility. Dr. Sharon Camp of the Washington-based Population Crisis Committee predicts that with Bill Clinton in the White House, RU-486, the French "abortion pill," will be available in this country within five years. Had President Bush been re-elected, she thinks it would have taken a decade.

* The renewed support for reproductive freedom should also contribute to a better climate for contraceptive research, giving women more choices for birth control -- and helping to prevent the need for abortion.

* The most notorious result of the Reagan-Bush litmus test on abortion has not affected Americans at all, but rather women in developing countries served by international family planning programs. Under a policy announced in 1984 at a United Nations population conference in Mexico City, the United States has withheld funding from the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, largely because of abortion opponents' objections to scattered reports of coerced abortions in the early years of China's one-child policy, a desperate attempt to restrain that country's population before it spirals out of control.

The Mexico City policy ignores the fact that family planning clinics are often a woman's only access to health care. Moreover, the main goal of family planning in these countries is to free women from yearly childbirth -- in order to preserve the mother's life and health and, equally important, to prevent infants from being weaned too soon, thus helping to cut the high toll of child mortality.

Since 1984, this malicious policy has stood as one of the biggest achievements of the anti-abortion movement. Doing away with this "pro-life" policy that actually costs human lives should be a priority of the Clinton administration.

Looking back on the long effort to pass the legislation that became Question 6 and to win the campaign for voter approval, state Sen. Barbara Hoffman no doubt spoke for many Maryland legislators this week when she said, "I'm delighted I don't have to deal with this again."

Elsewhere in the country, legislators may yet face skirmishes on abortion. But given the new political era ushered in on Tuesday, advocates for reproductive freedom no longer have to feel under siege.

Now, perhaps, the country can turn its attention to the real abortion issue -- helping ensure that women don't need it anymore.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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