The Hidden Crisis for Women's Choice

by Mary Lou Greenberg

Revolutionary Worker #997, March 7, 1999

It's almost the year 2000, but women in the U.S. are in danger of being pushed back decades. Attacks on abortion, and on women's freedom generally, have been a major part of the ongoing culture wars and the overall politics of cruelty. This has meant great hardship and suffering for many and poses some sharp challenges to all those who want to resist.

These challenges are particularly intense for youth, who have grown up with legal abortion on the one hand but who have also been affected by the whole climate of guilt and shame created by those who want to deny women the right and ability to choose. A whole generation needs to be mobilized to fight these attacks because their future--all of ours, really--is at stake. Women's lives are at issue, because without the ability to control their own reproduction, women cannot be free.

The National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers on March 10 is needed this year, more than ever, because the freedom to choose is more limited today than at any time since abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court's Roe decision in 1973. Between the assassins lurking outside clinics and doctors' homes, the intimidating and hateful signs and slogans of anti-abortion picketers at the doors to women's health facilities, and increasing state restrictions on every aspect of providing and seeking abortions, the ability of women--particularly young women and poor women--to end unwanted pregnancies is in great danger.

A little over a year ago, on Jan. 29, 1998, a clinic in Birmingham was bombed, killing a security guard and severely wounding nurse Emily Lyons. Then, on Oct. 23, Dr. Bernard Slepian was murdered in his own home near Buffalo, NY by a killer who lurked in his backyard. He was the fourth doctor killed, along with two clinic workers and a clinic escort, in six years, all for providing services necessary to women's lives. Others have been wounded in near-fatal attacks, and still more doctors and clinic workers have been and are harassed, accosted, stalked and threatened daily.

In addition, there was a series of foul-smelling and health-endangering Butyric acid attacks across Florida and Louisiana last spring. And last fall and in February of this year, dozens of clinics across the country received letters claiming to contain deadly anthrax germs. The letters have been fake threats--no traces of anthrax have been found in them. But dozens of people inside the clinics when the letters were opened had to be quarantined and decontaminated as a precaution. And in the first such threat aimed at a pro-choice organization not directly connected with providing abortions, an "anthrax" letter was sent to the NYC National Organization for Women office and was opened by NOW president Galen Sherwin who had to then be placed in isolation for six hours.

On the legal front, in 1998, states passed 62 new anti-abortion laws, on top of the 55 passed in 1997 and others before that. The range of restrictive laws is appalling:

  • 39 states require a minor to notify or get consent from an adult, most often a parent, prior to an abortion. The laws are enforced in 30 states, while the laws are on hold pending court decisions in the other nine states.
  • Only 14 states fund abortions for poor women in all or most circumstances. Poor women are essentially "on their own" in all others--to get the money however they can or try to abort themselves by the dangerous methods of pre-Roe days.
  • 28 states have banned so-called "partial-birth abortions" or other abortion procedures for the later months of pregnancy. (Court challenges are underway in 20 of these states.) These bans will especially hurt young women who can't get the money together or time off from school or work for an abortion in the first several months, or who don't realize they are pregnant until several months have passed.
  • 19 states require waiting periods that prohibit a woman from obtaining an abortion until a specified period of time after receiving a state-mandated lecture or materials. Because 84 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, many women have to travel hours to reach an abortion provider. For them especially, any waiting period at all is an intolerable hardship.
  • 30 states have abortion-specific "informed" consent laws, many of which require women to hear state-approved lectures, etc. on fetal development, adoption, etc. Abortion clinics already provide counseling for women to make sure they understand the procedure and are certain they want to end their pregnancies. These "informed" consent laws are designed to create confusion and uncertainty in women who've already made their decision. And there are more laws, too many to list here.
  • The devastating hardships such laws impose were vividly demonstrated in October by the case of a Louisiana woman whose doctor said that her third (and accidental) pregnancy could kill her. Michelle Lee, who has two children, has a serious, degenerative heart disease that leaves her exhausted and bedridden most days; she is on the list for a heart transplant. But the hospital where she has been a patient, Louisiana State University Medical Center in Shreveport, refused to let her have the abortion there. According to Louisiana law, abortions are prohibited at any facility that receives public research funding unless the pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest or the woman's life is endangered. And a hospital panel ruled that Michelle's condition was not life-threatening because she had a 50 percent chance of survival! Because of her heart condition, she had to have the abortion at a hospital so any unexpected complications could be treated. Fortunately, the National Abortion Federation located a hospital in Texas that would do the procedure, so, after a 250-mile ambulance ride, Michelle Lee was able to get her abortion.

    Then there is the case of Yuriko Kawaguchi, a college student who was arrested on a minor forgery charge. She didn't have bail money and while in a Cleveland jail awaiting trial, discovered she was pregnant. She wrote to the judge explaining her situation and requested a speedy trial so she could be released and have an abortion. But the judge deliberately delayed. And at Yuriko's sentencing hearing three months later, the judge rejected the usual sentence of probation--declaring that Kawaguchi was "not having a second-term abortion." Yuriko appealed and was released on bond, but by this time she was 25 weeks pregnant and could not find a doctor in Ohio to do the procedure. She was due to give birth in February.

    Forced motherhood is not just a specter of things to come. It is an increasing reality now. Without reproductive freedom, including the right to end unwanted pregnancies, women cannot be free, cannot be full and equal participants in society. And this is why the Christian fascists want to eliminate reproductive freedom and why it is such a central part of their whole program.

    Last year on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, I wrote in an "open letter to the pro-choice movement":

    "As a revolutionary communist, I see the struggle for women's liberation and this battle around abortion as part of the larger struggle for a new world. And I believe that unless and until this political and economic system--that not only thrives on but actually relies on patriarchy--is overthrown, every step toward the emancipation of women will be, at minimum, bitterly contested and the full potential of women will not be realized.

    "We need to dialogue and strategize about what it is going to take to carry this battle forward. But there also needs to be room for discussion and debate about what it's going to take for women to be really liberated. We need to be discussing these issues even, and especially, in the midst of today's struggles and in preparing for future battles.

    "We must take the offensive by changing the way we fight--to more thoroughly rely on ourselves and shift the terms that have been set by the other side. Let's make this 25th anniversary of Roe a time for new resolve and determination in the fight for women's liberation."

    After a year of intolerable attacks on women, coming as part of the overall attacks on the people, this approach is needed more than ever.

    On the occasion of International Women's Day 1999, I'd like to give a special salute to Birmingham nurse Emily Lyons who, despite suffering serious and painful injuries from the clinic bombing, has been fearlessly and energetically speaking out for abortion rights and inspiring all who hear her. I'd also like to salute all abortion providers and clinic workers who are standing tall and unshaken in their resolve to give women "choice."

    We can also look for inspiration to the mothers and other relatives of victims of police brutality, including Kadiadou Diallo, the mother of Amadou Diallo who was murdered by a barrage of police bullets in the Bronx. Despite great grief and risk to themselves and their families these courageous women continue to speak out against these vicious attacks.

    And especially we can look to the women breaking tradition's chains in every country to fight their own oppression and all injustice and exploitation, and most of all to the women in Peru, Nepal and the Philippines, fighting guns in hand together with their male comrades to bring a better world into being, including the full liberation of women.

    Mary Lou Greenberg is spokesperson for the NY Branch of the RCP, a long-time activist in the fight for reproductive rights, and is active with the Reproductive Freedom Task Force of Refuse & Resist! Her "open letter to the pro-choice movement" is available on the RW website. She can be reached at GCS Box 3180, NY, NY 10163.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
    Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
    Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
    (The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)