`Roe' at risk

January 20, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - There was a moment last month when the Bush administration overturned Roe vs. Wade. You may not have noticed because it happened in Bangkok - out of sight, out of media mind.

Our government went there to try to deep-six a U.N. agreement on family planning. After one of our delegates promoted abstinence-only education, after another warned of the risks of condoms, after a third shared her personal success story using the rhythm method, Assistant Secretary of State Gene Dewey took the podium. He said to the assembled: "The United States supports the sanctity of life from conception to natural death."

The "United States"? Had he confused the U.S.A. with a right-to-life organization? Had he forgotten that abortion is legal in this country?

From the outset, this administration gave the right wing domain over international family planning policy, as if the women of the world were their colony. And it paid no political price.

But after this moment, I wonder if the Bangkok drama was just a road show. Or was it an out-of-town preview for a play opening soon in our nation's capital?

Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. I'm usually wary of pro-choice alarmists whose message - the sky is falling and falling - plays on an endless loop.

But for the first time since Roe, the White House and both houses of Congress are all securely in Republican hands, and all hands are ready to chip away at reproductive rights - one law, one rule, one regulation, one case at a time.

Congress will begin, no doubt, by voting to outlaw the procedure heatedly if wrongly called "partial-birth abortion." Then it will take up a law against bringing minors across state lines to avoid parental notification. Then more laws giving the fetus rights that equal or surpass those of women. And more laws allowing hospitals to stop providing abortions without risking federal funds.

Then on to the central act: the judiciary. The president already has renominated Charles Pickering - a man who early on helped hoist the first anti-abortion plank on to the party platform - to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Next up, the search for one or two Antonin Scalia clones for anticipated Supreme Court openings.

Is the right gift for this anniversary a warning bell? Thirty years is a long time. It's long enough for an entire new generation to take for granted the right to decide.

Since 1995 there have been 335 state laws restricting a woman's right to choose. These laws have affected mostly poor, young, rural women - women as far off the political radar screen as Bangkok.

But what happens in the presence of a threat to the right itself? Thirty years of opinion polls have also shown that Americans consistently support legal abortion for three reasons: "rape, incest and me." Anti-abortion activists play on the sense that someone, somewhere, is having an abortion for frivolous reasons. But Americans believe that the women we know, the women we are, can be trusted to decide for ourselves.

So the other side of this anniversary story is that "me" now includes an estimated 30 million women who have had more than 39 million abortions since Roe.

That's 30 million different stories with emotions ranging from anxiety to relief. "How does a president tell 30 million women that they did something evil?" asks Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Until now, the politics have been easy. George W. Bush has been able to talk about "a culture of life." But he has also, carefully, repeatedly avoided saying that he wanted to overturn Roe. He's curried to the right while trying not to frighten the suburban middle.

His "United States" has exported the most draconian family planning ideas. His "United States" has allowed the anti-abortion, anti-sex-education, anti-birth-control right to rule our foreign policy.

Now on the 30th anniversary, push is coming to shove, foreign policy is coming home. Thirty years. Thirty million. This time we'll be watching.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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