Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–"Choice" was once a real winner for progressive candidates anxious to distance this society from the depravity of back-alley abortions that prevailed pre-1973, the year when the Supreme Court handed down the historic Roe v. Wade decision.

But as the election season just passed makes clear, that is no longer so.

In this campaign season–as threats to abortion reached historic highs–the action was on the anti-choice side.

According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, Louisiana’s governor recently signed a new ban on abortion, Ohio’s legislature held a hearing to debate an abortion ban and another 11 states have considered or are considering bills that would outlaw abortion in all or most circumstances.

Meanwhile, Roe v. Wade hangs by a slender thread named Justice Stevens, about whom retirement rumors swirl.

At the same time, South Dakota legislators have been seeking to push this issue before the high court by denying abortions to all women in their state, even a woman raped by her father.

Roe v. Wade held that states cannot prohibit abortion in the early stages or at any time when a woman’s health is endangered. The South Dakota plan would permit abortions only in cases in which the life of the mother is threatened.

While the South Dakota amendment on this issue was a big national story, it failed to ignite a political firestorm among women. Perhaps that’s because, today, many women have never known a world where abortion was illegal and can’t imagine such a world.

The Abortion Narrative

As for the news media, it seems to have decided that the main abortion narrative is that sentiment for choice is fading and that proponents of choice are extreme and out of the mainstream. U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has a near-perfect voting record on reproductive rights, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. But during her re-election campaign debate her challenger hurled this against her, as though it were as bad as being a "liberal" a few campaigns back.

The biggest media attention she drew on this issue, meanwhile, was when she tried to lower the steam on this issue by saying in a January of 2005 speech that abortion should be safe, legal and "rare."

"Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions," trumpeted the headline on the front page of the New York Times. "Hillary in the middle on values issues," agreed the Washington Times.

It hardly seems necessary for Senator Clinton or anyone else to tout rarity when it comes to abortion, given the steady erosion of rights and access to it in this country and the efforts to stamp out safe and legal abortions around the world.

In El Salvador, to give one horrendous example, abortion is not even possible for a woman with a fetus lodged in her fallopian tube, where it cannot grow. Doctors cannot help her until she has reached a danger point, either when her fetus dies or the tube ruptures.

The same scenario is being played out in Eastern Europe and elsewhere across the globe. To some people’s surprise, abortion has never been made legal in some European countries, such as Ireland and Portugal.

Meanwhile, did any U.S. pro-choice politician muster the courage to decry what happened in Nicaragua, last week, in the final heated days of the U.S. campaign? In case anyone glued to campaign coverage missed it, Nicaragua’s national assembly voted 52 to 0 to ban all abortions, even in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

Dismissing What Polls Show

National polls consistently show a majority of Americans preferring to keep abortion in this country legal and private. But to the extent that gets mentioned, it’s often buried in paragraph 15 of stories that headline declining U.S. support for abortion.

Amid this media chill, it’s no surprise that candidates try to freeze discussion of the topic.

But what happened to our campaign-season outrage over the Bush administration’s all-out war on birth control?

Of course this election was focused on a military adventure in Iraq that is claiming lives–U.S. military and Iraqi civilian alike–and costing the country billions every month at a time when social programs are getting starved.

But when the guns start firing, that doesn’t mean women’s voices and particular issues should be entirely lost. Recently the war in Iraq, the Iran and South Korean nuclear crises, and the Israeli-Hezbollah clashes have been dominating the opinion pages. On TV’s talking heads shows, as the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz points out, the participants have one thing in common: "They don’t wear pantyhose."

The result is that an issue such as contraception gets downgraded to a nonentity, even though it affects the vast majority of American women.

If candidates really want to keep abortions "rare," they should promote what both research and common sense show to obviate the need for abortion: effective contraception.

Contraception Is Now Political

Candidates who say contraception isn’t a worthy national political concern are either ignorant, lazy or cowardly, or some combination of the above.

The Bush administration has pulled all information on the safety and effectiveness of condoms off the Web sites of the Centers for Disease Control–an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services–and replaced it with praise for "abstinence only" education that have been widely criticized for spreading dangerous scientific misinformation, such as the "fact" that condoms don’t work, that you can get AIDS from sweat and that abortion causes breast cancer.

Bush appointed to a Food and Drug Administration panel on reproductive health a physician who would not prescribe birth control to his own patients because it would encourage them to have sex and wrote that women should read the Bible to relieve menstrual pain.

The administration delayed implementing a plan to sell emergency contraception over the counter to women over 18, even though its own FDA panel said the morning-after pill "was safe and effective." Democratic senators Clinton and Patty Murray had to threaten to block the appointment of Bush nominee Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach as FDA commissioner to get the plan unstuck.

In many states, pharmacies still refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill even for a rape victim. The Religious Right is now trying to define all forms of contraception–including the birth control pill and the IUD–as abortion. Check pro-life Web sites if you don’t believe it.

For the first time in my adult life, I see a serious threat not just to abortion, but to birth control as well. If the "privacy" argument of Roe is rolled back, what about the privacy argument of Griswold, the Supreme Court decision that made contraception legal?

According to the Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, a record 2,431 women were general election candidates for state legislative seats in 2006 and women were expected to increase their presence in the U.S. Congress.

Let’s hope some of the women who gained office and higher power yesterday will do something to redirect the discussion toward critical issues that have too often faded from the political spotlight.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University, and co-author, with Dr. Rosalind Barnett, of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs."


For more information:

Center for American Women and Politics, Election Watch:

NARAL Pro-Choice America:

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