Planned Parenthood activists protest ahead of the

(WOMENSENEWS)–In Seattle, Amie Newman e-mailed friends and family, exhorting them to review candidates’ stances on abortion before casting votes in the presidential primaries.

In Las Vegas, Mindy Browne knocked on strangers’ doors, encouraging them to support pro-choice candidates in the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus.

In New York, Sonia Ossorio chaired a meeting where National Organization for Women members discussed how the elections could undermine abortion access, even in this “safe” state.

They are among thousands who are working to raise awareness of the presidential primaries’ potential impact on reproductive rights. Acting as individuals or as part of coordinated efforts, women are rallying around this month’s 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Jan. 22, 1973, Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, as well as the early primaries, particularly Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when presidential contests in 23 states are widely expected to pin down the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Because the next president could appoint Supreme Court justices who could overturn Roe v. Wade–along with lower court justices who could undermine it–abortion rights hang in the balance. Without a federal abortion guarantee under Roe, a woman’s access to abortion would depend on her state’s law.

“At this crucial juncture, we’re focusing on the future of Roe v. Wade and the political primaries,” says Kathryn Prael, deputy communications director for the Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We’re alerting voters that the leading Democratic contenders are all pro-choice, while the leading Republicans are all anti-choice.”

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund is also making a major effort. Last week it launched a $10 million nationwide “Million Strong Campaign” that is raising awareness about reproductive health issues. The largest voter-mobilization in Planned Parenthood’s history, it aims to bring 1 million pro-choice citizens to the polls in November.

Freedom of Choice Act

With many states positioned to ban abortion if Roe falls, pro-choice activists are rallying behind the Freedom of Choice Act, first introduced in Congress in 2004 by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. It prohibits government interference with a woman’s right to have an abortion and would guarantee reproductive rights regardless of who is president. Spurred on by the National Organization for Women, activists across the United States are encouraging voters to lobby their representatives to pass it.

Activists are also reaching out to single women, who have been turning out more heavily than usual in primary elections so far.

They are also targeting independent and pro-choice Republican women, who can safeguard abortion only by switching parties or supporting fourth-ranking Republican candidate Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor whose pro-choice commitment is considered wobbly by some.

Some Roe initiatives are local, such as the 80,000 calls NARAL Pro-Choice America’s members made to New Hampshire independents before that state’s primary. Recipients heard a prerecorded message that urged them to support Democrats, not Republicans.

Some efforts have worked at the grassroots level, like the communal “blog for choice” that NARAL members created on the Roe. v. Wade anniversary. More than 500 participants wrote messages explaining why abortion should remain legal, combining them to create a massive online essay.

Potluck Lunches and Dinners

Activists also organized potluck luncheons and dinners on the Roe anniversary in towns across the country. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, gave a commemorative speech in Texas, where the group considers reproductive rights to be so imperiled that it gave the state an F on its most recent report card.

Nancy Keenan speaks in Texas on Roe's anniversary.

The entrenched anti-choice stance of most of the Republican candidates has energized female voters, activists say.

Arizona Sen. John McCain has spent 25 years in Congress. On 128 abortion measures he cast 124 anti-choice votes, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. He supported a federal abortion ban that prohibits a procedure used after 12 weeks of pregnancy even when they are medically necessary. The ban makes no exceptions to protect a woman’s health, and was sanctioned by the Supreme Court in April 2007.

During Mike Huckabee’s 14 years as lieutenant governor and then governor of Arkansas, he denied Medicaid-funded abortion services to a 15-year-old incest survivor. He also signed a law that criminalizes some abortion services, with no exception to protect a woman’s health.

While serving as Massachusetts governor for four years, Mitt Romney reversed his previously pro-choice stance. During a 1994 senatorial bid, he told voters, “I believe abortion should be safe and legal in this country.” During recent campaigning, he said, “I believe abortion is wrong except in cases of incest, rape and to save the life of the mother.”

Rudolph Giuliani, the trailing Republican candidate, is considered the only pro-choice GOP contender, but Susan Cohen, director of government affairs for New York-based Guttmacher Institute, questions his commitment.

“As mayor of New York City, Giuliani was firmly pro-choice,” she says. “But recently he hinted that overturning Roe might be acceptable, and he says he most admires judges in the mold of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who are both anti-choice.”

All the leading Democratic presidential contenders have staunch pro-choice platforms, their campaign Web sites and public records show. They have voted against anti-choice bills in Congress and blasted the Supreme Court for upholding the federal abortion ban.

NARAL Backs All the Democrats

“Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have all done tremendous work as abortion rights advocates,” says Elizabeth Shipp, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s political director. “We endorse them all equally, because in this regard, there’s not a hair’s breadth of difference between them.”

While activists may not agree on which Democrat is best for reproductive choice–or what to make of Giuliani–interviews for this article found unanimity on the fear of losing Roe rights. Sources pointed out that on the federal level access has never been more threatened. Many reproductive rights advocates consider the court to be split 5-4, with a pro-Roe majority that could shift. Rumors are swirling that three pro-choice justices may be nearing retirement.

Since 1995, more than 500 anti-choice measures have been enacted in the states, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. These restrictions enforce mandatory waiting periods, require young women to notify their parents before having abortions and limit providers by regulating the size of their waiting rooms and subjecting them to rules not applied to other doctors.

Twenty-two states have laws that could outlaw abortion as early as 12 weeks that do not include exceptions to protect a woman’s health, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Four other states ban an abortion procedure without a health exception.

Thirty states could pass legislation that prohibits abortion in the wake of Roe being overturned, notes the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights. South Dakota nearly outlawed abortion in November 2006, when a ban that allowed an exception only to save the life of the woman was defeated by a margin of 56 to 44 percent in the polls.

With 2.7 million unplanned pregnancies in the United States each year, 22 percent of pregnancies ending in abortion and Gallup polls showing most Americans support reproductive rights, pro-choice advocates are sending a call to action to women in Super Tuesday states: Vote.

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

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2008 Presidential Election:

NARAL Pro-Choice America, 2008 Presidential Candidate Choice Statements:

NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Nancy Keenan, speech on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade

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