Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush

(WOMENSENEWS)–The choice was clear.

Earlier this month, as millions of Americans watched the presidential debates, the candidates’ conflicting views on reproductive rights were front and center for all to see.

When asked about abortion during the Oct.8 debate, Senator John Kerry responded, “You have to afford people their Constitutional rights.”

President George W. Bush replied, “We need to have good adoption laws as an alternative to abortion, and we need to promote maternity group homes.”

When asked during the Oct.13 debate whether he hoped to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that guarantees legal abortion, Kerry faced his audience and said: “I’ll answer it straight to America. I’m not going to appoint a judge to the court who’s going to undo a constitutional right.”

Bush, for his part, squinted at the camera and did not answer the question.

The candidates’ responses mirror the track records they’ve established during their political careers. And this is the primary reason pro-choice activists are battling to get Kerry elected.

“A second Bush term would be a disaster for reproductive rights,” says Evelyn Becker, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Bush substitutes dogma for science, and is actively working to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Bush Pushes Strong Anti-Choice Agenda

During his four years in office, President Bush has fought on many fronts to, in his words, “restrict” women’s right to choose. “I would support a constitutional ban on abortion,” he said, “but I recognize America is not prepared to pass one.”

In January 2001, on his first day in office, Bush reinstalled a “global gag rule” that denies federal funding to overseas family planning programs that provide abortions, discuss abortion options or lobby for change in the nation’s abortion laws.

In 2002 and in each year since, Bush has withheld the $34 million earmarked by Congress for the United Nations Population Fund. This money would have helped provide a vast array of reproductive health services to poor women in developing countries.

In November 2003, Bush signed the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act,” which prohibits any “overt act” to “kill the partially-delivered living fetus.” Since there is no medical procedure called “partial birth abortion” and since this legislation is vaguely worded, advocates argue it could be used to outlaw not only abortions performed during the last three months of a pregnancy, but most abortions past 12 weeks.

In April 2004, Bush signed the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” which makes it a crime to injure or kill an unborn fetus while injuring or killing a pregnant woman during the commission of a federal crime. This law is the first to give the fetus rights that are independent of the mother.

In May 2004, Bush applauded the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to veto the over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception pills, which dramatically reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant after unprotected sex.

In September 2004, he successfully pressured Congress to approve a record amount of funding ($173 million) for “abstinence-only” sex education programs that do not provide information about contraception or protection from sexually transmitted diseases.

In October 2004, Bush succeeded in getting Congress to pass a Department of Defense authorization bill that denies federal funding to women in the military who are seeking abortions in the wake of rape or incest.

Over the course of his term, Bush has appointed more than 200 anti-choice federal judges–as well as an Attorney General (John Ashcroft) and a Secretary of Health and Human Services (Tommy Thompson)–both oppose reproductive choice.

Kerry Supports Abortion Rights

During his 20 years in the Senate, Bush’s opponent has consistently proven his commitment to reproductive rights. In Congress, Kerry voted against each of the anti-choice legislative measures detailed above. He also fought Bush’s confirmation of anti-choice executive and judicial nominees.

“Planned Parenthood tracks the voting records of members of Congress and asks candidates to fill out questionnaires outlining their views,” says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “From our vantage point, Kerry rates a perfect score. He has a 100 percent pro-choice, pro-family planning, pro-woman voting record.”

The bottom line for pro-choice advocates is that Kerry supports Roe v. Wade. “I’m going to stand up for the rights of women,” he has pledged. “I am not going to allow the Supreme Court to take away choice.”

Bush Likely to Further Restrict Reproductive Rights

Health advocates predict that if Bush is elected, he will reintroduce old anti-choice initiatives (like his failed attempt in April 2001 to deny contraception coverage to federal employees) and promote new ones.

“Our number one concern is Roe v. Wade,” says NARAL’s Becker. Three of the Supreme Court’s nine justices are likely to retire in the next four years. Two of those three–Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens–are pro-choice. Since only five of the current justices support reproductive choice (meaning it hangs by a margin of one justice), Roe v. Wade will likely be overturned if Bush appoints new anti-choice justices.

Even if a woman’s right to abortion is not overturned, Bush could continue whittling away at reproductive rights with an arsenal of measures.

He supports legislation currently before Congress that allows federally-funded health care providers to refuse reproductive services to women; makes it a crime to transport a woman under age 18 across state lines to obtain an abortion if she has not met parental notification requirements in her own state; and suspends government approval of mifepristone, the drug known as “RU-486” or “the abortion pill.”

By encouraging Congress to pass these measures–and signing them into law–Bush could make major dents in reproductive rights even if Roe v. Wade holds.

Kerry Likely to Preserve Abortion Rights

For his part, Kerry has pledged to not only maintain his pro-choice stance but to reverse the very policies Bush has put into place. Kerry has vowed to increase funding for domestic and international family planning programs that have been depleted over the past four years. He has criticized the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act because it fails to make exceptions for the health of the mother. He has also blasted abstinence-only sex education programs as ineffectual and dangerous.

Though Kerry hasn’t outlined specific plans regarding emergency contraception, mifepristone, or other reproductive concerns, pro-choice advocates are confident that he will fight for their side.

“Kerry’s voting record tells us that if we go to him with policy initiatives, he will definitely give them a fair hearing,” says Feldt of Planned Parenthood.

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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