Pro-Choice Forces Come in from the Cold


January 19, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- Tomorrow, with about as much pomp an circumstance as a democracy can muster, we will inaugurate the 42nd president of the United States of America.

Friday, with about as much rancor and dissension as a democracy can display, we will observe the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

For the first time in 12 years, the anti-abortion protesters gathering will not have a friend in the White House. For the first time in 12 years, there will be a president in the Oval Office who has said, ''I will guarantee a woman's right to choose.''

If you want to know what a difference one man can make, take out your checklist. This is what Bill Clinton can do in the first weeks of office all on his own:

He can rescind the gag rule that forbids abortion counseling at federally funded clinics. He can end the prohibition on abortions at military hospitals. He can end the ban on importing RU-486. He can begin choosing pro-choice judges and maybe a justice.

If you want to know what a difference one man can't make. This is what he can't do with the stroke of a pen:

Stop the harassment at clinics -- the Operation Rescues that just got a green light from the Supreme Court's decision to deny clinics federal protection. Overturn state laws that have erected one obstacle after another between a woman and an abortion. End the argument.

So the issue for abortion-rights activists who would dearly like to hold a victory celebration and close up shop is this: How do they keep the troops and the energy for rest of the fight? How do they also move on, make good on the political slogan that read, ''We don't want to make abortion more dangerous; we want to make it less necessary?''

For Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League, the ''greatest worry is that people will believe the threat is now gone. The greatest threat in 1993 is complacency.'' Indeed complacency can already be charted in fund-raising that rose and then fell with the level of fear. It can be charted by the attention to this issue -- a span cut short by Clinton's victory.

''The American public is tired of hearing about abortion,'' acknowledges the incoming President of Planned Parenthood, Pamela Maraldo. ''We need it as a fundamental right, but the average American woman does not consider abortion a day-to-day issue.''

The first test of a new direction will come over the Freedom of Choice Act that will soon be introduced to Congress. The bill, conceived as a safety net for abortion rights, a legislative bulwark against a hostile Supreme Court and president, has raised new questions and divided old supporters.

Is an act that would ensure Roe v. Wade in its original, unadulterated form still too much to ask for? If it cannot get through Congress without amendments, without 24-hour waiting periods and serious restrictions, would it do women more harm than good?

Or is the Freedom of Choice Act too little to ask for? The bill says nothing about funding for poor women's abortions. It says nothing about teen-agers. In the new climate, is it less than we could get?

Pro-choice activists, who have been outsiders for so long, are going to have to decide how much energy should be used in this fight.

In the days ahead, abortion may continue to be seen as a single hot button of women's rights, or it may be reframed as one of many issues of women's health. Pro-choice activists may remain outsiders, sounding the alarm, or may come in to hammer out policies to increase contraceptives and decrease teen-age pregnancy, to support maternal care as well as abortion.

The direction will depend on how aggressive the opposition is at clinic doors and in state capitals. There may be only the briefest reprieve in the struggle.

But this is a turning point. The American people staked out their position. In the words of the man they voted into office: ''I am not pro-abortion, I am pro-choice, strongly.'' They want abortion to remain legal, and they want it to be less necessary.

Now the pro-choice movement has an opportunity that was missed in 1973. It's not to be complacent. But it is to expand the message over a broader terrain and build a movement over common ground. This is a chance that may only come around once every 20 years.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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