LOS ANGELES, August 15--A catchy, off-camera election slogan is catching on fast with the women here: "It's the Supreme Court, Stupid!"
It's an update of the unofficial motto of Bill Clinton's 1992 election campaign during a serious recession: "It's the economy, Stupid" --as though revealing the blindingly obvious to the benighted.
After eight years, with the economy booming as never before, the support for a women's right to choose is in a deep recession, Democratic delegates, candidates, lobbyists and pundits say.
The danger to choice has become a rallying cry here. Alarmed women's advocates cite the recent Supreme Court decision overturning so-called "partial-birth" abortion laws by a one-vote majority and the Republican Party platform calling for a constitutional amendment barring abortions--no exceptions even to save a woman's life.
Today at the Democratic women's caucus, at the Beverly Hills fundraising luncheon for women candidates and in a forum sponsored by the People for the American Way, the focus was the same: Abortion rights are on the line this election.
"I can't remember anytime since Roe v. Wade that so much depends on so few," U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey of New York told several hundred women at the caucus meeting. Referring to the Republican leadership in Congress, she added, "Our nation has the most anti-choice leadership in history," one which does not reflect popular sentiment.
At an EMILY's List Beverly Hills luncheon attended by about 1,000 women, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said: "There have been 120 votes on choice" in the Senate, and we lost all but 21, and those 21 were in my first two years. The Republican Party is on a march to take back 30 years and eliminate the right of choice."
EMILY's List is a donor's network with 60,000 members that raises money for pro-choice Democratic women candidates running for Congress and governor.
Feinstein added that the anti-choice forces, when they are thwarted in Congress, take cases to the Supreme Court where reproductive freedom hangs by a one-vote majority. Speaking to the younger women in the audience, Feinstein recalled the years of danger to women's health before the landmark 1973 decision, known as Roe v. Wade, and declared that women have a right to choose abortion without government interference.
"Many of you don't know what it was like before Roe v. Wade to pass around a plate to try to collect money for someone who needed an abortion. Many of you don't know someone who committed suicide because she found herself inadvertently pregnant." Women on Tuesday were passing the plate to ensure that abortion remains legal.
And last night, New York's Senate candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, warned: "If we stay home, if we get lulled by the sweet sounds that came out of Philadelphia, we could wake up and find ourselves going backward and not forward." At the forum sponsored by the People for the American Way, the pronouncements were less visceral and more cerebral. Speakers pointed out that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is 80 and that two other justices, Sandra Day O'Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have been treated for cancer.
Whoever is elected president in November, speakers said, is likely to appoint two, possibly three justices to the court. That, in turn, could alter the fragile balance of the court, which is deeply divided about women's rights. If Texas Gov. George W. Bush is elected, he is committed to appointing anti-choice judges throughout the legal system, including the Supreme Court, they said. Bush has said he would not use an abortion rights litmus test.
"He is going to appoint people like (Antonin) Scalia and (Clarence) Thomas," said election strategist and presidential advisor James Carville. "There's going to be a family and dog and a couple of kids, and they will orchestrate it and it will look very nice and Roe v. Wade will be gone. It will be boom, boom and you won't know what hit you."Yet, even the staunchest pro-choice supporters attending the convention concede that they will have an uphill struggle convincing voters that Bush, regardless of how he stands on the issue, will appoint justices who will actually overturn Roe v. Wade.
They contend with the prevailing view that regardless of who makes the appointment, Supreme Court justices appointed for life often surprise their patrons and establish new voting patterns.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, known for the landmark civil rights cases such as Miranda (requiring police to warn suspects of their right to remain silent) and Brown v. the Board of Education (barring segregation of public schools), was appointed by Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
More recently, President George Bush appointed David Souter, who has disappointed conservatives with his pro-choice stand. Others argue that President Bill Clinton's appointments to the court, Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, are conservative.
Gore supporters such as Rep. Barney Frank said that argument is not valid. He noted that Stevens, appointed by President Gerald Ford, is a very different kind of Republican from the ultra-conservatives who dominate the party today.
Additionally, Frank dismissed suggestions that Ginsburg and Breyer were not true liberals. For example, he noted that Ginsburg is the "Thurgood Marshall (of the court) on women's rights issues."
Pro-choice activist are also concerned about the candidacy of Ralph Nader. His campaign has not made abortion an issue, and is focusing on trade issues. Yet any vote for Nader is likely to take support away from Gore, further strengthening Bush's chances.
"Who really thinks that they are going to overturn Roe v. Wade?" asked Julie Burton, executive director of Voters For Choice. "Justices (William) Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas believe they are, and, if this election is wrongly decided, they believe it can be, and should be, overturned."
Constance Johnson is a former Wall Street Journal correspondent based in New York.
WEnews correspondents Kathryn Beaumont and Jeannine Yeomans contributed to this report.
Photo copyright 2000 Panoramic Visions.