By Renee Cho

The Quiet Undoing of Our Right to Choose


The 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade came and went on January 24 of this year. Distracted by the impending war in Iraq and a flagging economy at home, most women I know didn’t pay much attention to the day. But perhaps they should have, instead of taking for granted our guaranteed right to have an abortion. With George W. Bush in the White House and Congress controlled by the Republican Party, anti-abortion forces are paying close attention and insidiously making progress on their anti-choice agenda. In the original Roe v. Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun and the Supreme Court majority ruled that a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy in its early stages, later defined to last until the 23rd week of pregnancy, when the fetus is viable outside the uterus. But states have always had the right to protect the fetus once it is viable, even by banning abortion. Depending on the political makeup of their legislatures, states can and are gradually curtailing the availability of abortion services, requiring parental notification laws so that minors must get consent for an abortion, instituting mandatory waiting periods before a woman can have an abortion, and enacting laws granting “personhood” to a fetus. According to a recent issue of ProChoice, the newsletter published by the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion, 25 states are anti-choice or have mixed records on abortion. The ProChoice newsletter also provides a timeline itemizing all the Bush administration’s executive orders, actions, and judgeship appointments which are incrementally serving to erode Roe v. Wade. Here are just a few of the events on the timeline: • In January 2001, just after his inauguration, Bush resuscitated the global gag rule which forbids health providers that receive family planning monies to counsel women on abortion or provide abortion services. • In May and June of 2001, Bush nominated to various Circuit Courts of Appeal six judges, all conservative and anti-abortion. • In October 2001 (and again in February 2003), Bush increased funding for abstinence-only sex education. • In January 2002, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson made “unborn children”, but not pregnant women, eligible for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. • In June 2002, scientific information on how condoms can be used to protect against AIDS, how abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer, and how programs can help reduce teenage sexual activity was removed from government websites. • In October 2002, Bush declared that embryos and fetuses should receive the same protection as human beings in the charter of the Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections. • In January 2003, Bush called the anniversary of Roe v. Wade “National Sanctity of Life Day”. • In March 2003, the Republican-controlled Senate passed the “partial birth abortion” ban. The House passed it last month, and Bush has promised to sign it into law. By now, the Senate and House may have already voted to enact the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), the first federal law which would give a fetus legal rights distinct from its mother. In a calculated play for emotions, its sponsors have dubbed the act “Laci and Connor’s Law” after Laci Peterson and her unborn son who were murdered, allegedly by husband Scott Peterson. UVVA would make it a federal crime to inflict bodily injury or death on an “unborn child” in utero. There is no question that the Peterson murder is tragic, but abortion rights groups worry that even though UVVA specifically exempts abortion, enacting it into law would be a big step towards the right wing’s ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. Samuel B. Casey, executive director of the Christian Legal Society in Virginia, was quoted in a January 19 Los Angeles Times article: “In as many areas as we can, we want to put on the books that the embryo is a person. That sets the stage for a jurist to acknowledge that human beings at any stage of development deserve protection — even protection that would trump a woman’s interest in terminating a pregnancy.” This strategy could become key to Roe v. Wade’s demise as some of the aging Supreme Court justices will soon retire and will likely be replaced by ultra-conservative justices selected by the Bush White House. Technology and developments in reproductive medicine have vastly complicated the issues of when life begins, what constitutes viability of a fetus, and the value of human life at any stage. In response, Kate Michelman, president of Naral Pro-choice America (formerly the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League), based in Washington, D.C., was quoted in the cited Los Angeles Times article: “The fact that we’re learning more about the embryo and fetal development doesn’t change the fundamental question of who gets to make decisions about a woman’s body.”

The issue of abortion is not as simple to me today as it once was. At 20, I wished a breezy “good luck” to a bright and beautiful college friend as she went off to have an abortion after becoming pregnant by her boyfriend. The idea of having a baby at that age, when our lives were full of promise and potential, was unthinkable. Seventeen years later, after we had both had a child, I sat opposite this same friend, now in tears as she contemplated another abortion. She didn’t believe her husband wanted this baby and she was about to make the appointment to have it aborted. This time, I encouraged her not to abort, arguing that her husband would come around. After being pregnant, feeling life inside you, and knowing firsthand what that primordial creature can become, it’s not so easy to advocate abortion. My friend did not make the appointment and today her daughter is a beautiful 15-year-old, loved by both her parents. If I had a 15-year-old daughter, I would absolutely want her to have the right to choose if she ever became pregnant. And as the mother of two teenage sons whose lives could also be forever derailed by an accidental pregnancy, I want to be sure that Roe v. Wade remains intact. Though many women like myself who have had children are no longer as certain of their personal feelings on abortion as they once were, neither do we want anyone else’s view imposed on us. In order to protect our freedom to choose, however, we must be aware of the right wing’s ongoing agenda and actions. We need to take stock of what’s happening before it’s too late and take action by contacting our representatives to let our opinions be counted. Most tragic of all would be to have our right to choose quietly dismantled, brick by brick, while we’re looking the other way.