Women want the right to make a choice

January 29, 2001|By Cleo Braver

For American women, George W. Bush's inauguration as president could have a profound effect on their ability to control their own reproductive choices. While America is decidedly pro-choice, as demonstrated by the majority vote favoring the pro-choice candidates, Mr. Bush is not.

On his first full day in office, President Bush made it blatantly apparent that he does not trust women to make their own choices where their reproductive health is concerned. He reinstated the Reagan-era Mexico City policy, (also known as the "Global Gag Rule") denying U.S. funding to any foreign non-governmental organizations that provide abortion services, counseling or referrals.

The stated purpose of this policy is to prevent the use of taxpayer funds to perform or "promote" abortions overseas. But this is not the case. Current law has prohibited the use of U.S. funds for these purposes since 1973. This new policy goes further and controls what foreign recipients of U.S. international family planning assistance do and say with their own funds.

While this act is Mr. Bush's first step toward establishing his anti-choice record as president, his anti-choice predilection as governor of Texas is already well known. He signed 18 state anti-abortion measures into law, furthering the inaccessibility of abortion that already exists in Texas.

His most recent blow to Texas women was the 1999 law requiring unemancipated minors to notify their parents at least 48 hours before obtaining an abortion. Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that the imposition of waiting periods has the undesired consequence of pushing abortion from early to later term. (The Maryland legislature will be deciding similar legislation during this session.)

This law is frightening, but it is minor when it comes to the bigger picture. President Bush does not want to stop at making women jump through hoops to obtain an abortion. He wants to prevent them from getting one altogether.

With Mr. Bush in office, American women face a real risk of losing the protection afforded by Roe vs. Wade.

Should a Supreme Court justice retire, for example, Mr. Bush will be in the position of appointing a successor. He has stated that he would appoint a "strict constructionist" (read "anti-choice") judge to the bench, someone with the same narrow mind-set as Justice Antonin Scalia, the most overtly anti-choice justice. With the appointment of a conservative justice, the next abortion case could ultimately snap the fragile supports that are holding up a woman's right to choose.

Until that happens, however, Mr. Bush has the power to slowly whittle away at Roe vs. Wade with 136 federal judicial appointments, by signing into law any anti-choice legislation that crosses his desk and with his Cabinet choices, which are the most immediate threat.

Planned Parenthood is particularly concerned about two of them: John Ashcroft as attorney general and Tommy Thompson as secretary of Health and Human Services.

Mr. Ashcroft, a former Missouri senator, supported legislation prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion services and worked on laws requiring parental notification and consent. He also helped lead the fight for a bill pushed by anti-choice extremists that will impose criminal and civil penalties against doctors that perform certain abortions.

Mr. Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin, has said that he wants to limit abortions to cases in which a woman's life is endangered or those of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. He signed bills mandating a 24-hour waiting period, during which abortion providers must counsel women about the risks associated with the procedure and mandating that a minor must receive the consent of a parent or adult family member over the age of 25 before she can receive an abortion.

Even though Mr. Bush advocates preventing unintended pregnancies, he has failed to indicate any support for measures that can significantly reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, such as the critical need for more family planning funding.

In addition, he does not recognize the need to move beyond abstinence-only sex education programs that abound in misinformation about sexual activity and omit information about contraception. And he has remained silent about contraception (including emergency contraception), the most effective way to reduce unintended pregnancies

The threat against women's reproductive health choices is very real. The next four years will be a test of the staying power of Roe vs. Wade. Our best option right now is to continue promoting and being advocates for what the American people have clearly indicated they want -- the freedom to control their own reproductive health.

Cleo Braver is the interim president and chief operating officer of Planned Parenthood of Maryland Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides voter education, registration and support services.

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