Ellen Malcolm

Washington, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Democratic presidential hopefuls, as well some factions of the GOP, are sounding a collective note of alarm about the durability of a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

“This is definitely a time to be concerned for the pro-choice community,” said Jennifer Stockman, national co-chair of the New York-based Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. “There’s no question in my mind that the Republican Taliban wants Roe v. Wade to be overturned,” shesaid, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that lifted the ban on abortion. “If that doesn’t happen in the near term, they want to chip away at it so that it almost becomes impossible for a woman to do what she needs to do” to get an abortion.

Seizing on what they consider one of the incumbent’s greatest vulnerabilities, Democratic presidential contenders issued similar warnings at a candidate forum last week organized by EMILY’s List, the Washington, D.C., pro-choice political action committee that encourages women’s political participation. Pushing the point into partisan territory, the candidates added that it would take a Democrat in the White House to prevent abortion from once again becoming illegal.

A spokesperson from Bush’s reelection campaign did not immediately return a call seeking comment about whether the president seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Candidates at the EMILY’s List event, said Bush’s intent to curtail abortion rights had already been made evident by his anti-choice appointments to the federal judiciary. They added that he could go so far as to help roll back Roe v. Wade if he is president at the retirement of one of the five Supreme Court justices who favor abortion rights. That could well be the case if rumors prove true that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the high court’s swing vote on abortion, steps down before the 2004 elections.

Appointed to the bench in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan, O’Connor has a mixed record on abortion. In 1992, she was the deciding vote against a case that would have overturned Roe v. Wade. In 1989, she voted to uphold a law that restricted access to abortions in certain cases by giving states the right to make specific abortion decisions.

‘Extreme Political Agenda’ Cited by Moseley Braun

“If George W. Bush gets reelected, you can be about certain that in six years Roe v. Wade will be gone, affirmative action will be gone, and the extreme political agenda that this (administration) has advocated and promoted will be ensconced in civil society,” said Carol Moseley Braun, formerly a senator from Illinois, now an ambassador to New Zealand and the only woman in the nine-person field.

Moseley Braun was joined at the EMILY’s List forum by Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. Two other Democratic hopefuls, Senator Bob Graham of Florida and the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York, did not attend.

At the EMILY’s List event, Moseley Braun made a pitch for financial support from the group, which only endorses pro-choice female candidates, suggesting her candidacy can pave the way for more women who want to enter politics. Unless she can raise more money, she said, she might have to “fold my tent” and bow out of the campaign.

EMILY’s List spokeswoman Janet Harris did not discuss Moseley Braun’s financial situation in a telephone interview and said no decision had been made about whether the group will endorse a candidate in the primary, even though Moseley Braun has a strong record of supporting abortion rights and, as the only woman in the race, would be the only one eligible to receive contributions from the group.

The Moseley Braun campaign did not immediately return calls for comment about her statement that she might withdraw from the race for lack of sufficient funds.

An acronym formed from “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (it helps the “dough” rise), EMILY’s List has earned a reputation as one of the most influential special-interest groups in the country, having helped elect 11 female senators, 55 congresswomen and seven female governors. In 2002, the group raised more than $24 million through its 73,000-member donor network to educate female voters and get them to the polls in the 2002 elections and hopes to outdo that in the 2004 presidential elections.

Bush Attacked for Turning Back the Clock on Equal Rights

The six other Democrats who appeared at the forum didn’t make any financial appeals but they did sound equally dire warnings about the perilous state of women’s rights, each taking turns attacking the Bush administration for attempting to turn back the clock on a wide range of civil and equal rights and pledging to protect such hard-won rights if he goes on to defeat Bush in the general election next year.

“Face it: This president has been a disaster for the women of this country,” said Lieberman, a centrist defense hawk who emphasized that he has been pro-choice his entire career; a dig at two other candidates, Gephardt and Kucinich.

When he first came to Congress in 1976, Gephardt supported an amendment to the Constitution that would ban abortion. A quarter century later as minority leader, however, he earned a perfect score from NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights watchdog group. Gephardt explained his turnabout earlier this year at a NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner, where he said his Baptist upbringing had taught him that the procedure was morally wrong but that gradually he had come to see it as a personal choice.

Kucinich, meanwhile, announced he had changed his position to favor abortion rights last February on the day he kicked off his campaign, reversing the position he had held on the issue during seven years in Congress, when he has generally opposed abortion rights and consistently opposed federal funding of abortion for poor women. He addressed his about-face last week by reassuring the audience that as president he would support the right to choose. “I haven’t always been there,” he said. “But women will never truly be equal until we protect Roe v. Wade.”

Some of the candidates called attention to a persistent gender bias on many other social issues, particularly in the areas of employment and education, noting that the Bush administration has done little to improve, and has in some cases undermined, advances in these areas. They pointed to efforts by the Bush administration to scale back Title IX, the 30-year-old civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against girls and women in education and school sports and criticized Bush for failing to champion the issue of pay equity.

“You never hear this president say a single word about another basic issue of equality–women making 76 cents on the dollar, doing the same work men are doing,” Edwards said to applause. “How in the world can we have equality in America until we actually have pay equity in America?”

The Republican Pro-Choice Coalition’s Stockman conceded that Bush has bent to the will of the anti-choice community on abortion, but she stopped short of characterizing him as intent on outlawing abortion. She did agree, however, that Bush will have to take more decisive steps than simply appointing some pro-choice advisers to his inner-circle to convince a largely pro-choice electorate that he will protect a woman’s right to choose.

Republicans See Election at Risk

If he doesn’t, she said, he risks losing reelection. She cited polls showing that 80 percent of the electorate is pro-choice, and that 40 percent of those who identify themselves as Republicans are pro-choice. Even among those who call themselves “pro-life,” two-thirds say they wouldn’t support overturning Roe v. Wade or would not want the government to intervene in other women’s decisions about whether to terminate a pregnancy, she said.

Stockman said the administration has been throwing a lot of bones to keep the anti-choice community happy. She added that the President’s political advisers should understand that in order to win safely, they can’t be perceived as part of the intolerant wing of the party. “If they don’t,” she said, “it puts the Republicans in a more vulnerable position than they care to be in, especially in those swing states where they have to have a pro-choice message.”

Meanwhile, the presidential hopefuls also attacked Bush on familiar themes such as the war against Iraq, the lackluster economy and other areas of his domestic and foreign policy agenda such as tax cuts, welfare and health care reform. But it was the issues of particular concern to women that won the loudest applause from the audience of pro-choice women who are also members of EMILY’s List.

The two Democrats who won the loudest cheers were Kerry and Dean, both of whom brandished their feminist credentials in an attempt to woo this key constituency. “When women vote, Democrats win,” Kerry said to loud applause, while Dean declared: “Based on my record in Vermont, you won’t find a better feminist running for president.”

For more information:

EMILY’s List:

NARAL Pro-Choice America:

Republican Pro-Choice Coalition: