Lessons of Old Battles

27 Sep

The Center for Reproductive Rights report this month about the number of women affected by the Hyde amendment corresponds with a book I’ve been reading about the history of abortion politics, specifically the battles of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The book is Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War by William Saletan. I’ve often asked that Saletan stop writing about abortion for Slate.com, because he’s the pro-choice side’s worst “friend” (he is touted as both their “expert” on abortion as well as a “pro-choice” defender). But if his history of the various state and federal battles that occurred well after Roe’s passage is to be believed then some old lessons should be brought to light.

The book covers various specific abortion campaigns: Arkansas in 1986, the 1989 Supreme Court Webster decision, Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, parental control battles in North Carolina and Georgia, how the Clinton administration failed to pass the Freedom of Choice Act, and how, in what was a forerunner to the Stupak amendment, they also would have abandoned abortion coverage had Clinton’s healthcare plan passed.

In Saletan’s book two themes dominate most of the battles: the decision of pro-choice campaign consultants to win certain fights using any language that works, even if such language later gets twisted in other campaigns for the opposite side. The other main theme is “triage.”

In war, medics overwhelmed by wounded soldiers sort them into three categories. Some don’t need prompt attention. Others can’t be saved. Those who need prompt attention and can be saved take priority. Doctor’s call this logic “triage.” If there were more help, some of the patients deemed unsalvageable might be rescued. But there isn’t. Among pro-choice activists, a nationwide pattern of triage was emerging and the young and the poor were its losers. (p.122)

In the issue of the first theme, it’s difficult to overstate some of the challenges pro-choice organizations faced running campaigns in conservative states in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Women’s rights? Bodily integrity? Those were concepts that voters in Arkansas, Georgia, and Louisiana voters (and many other states) did NOT want to hear about. But what did sometimes work? Anti-government themed campaigns that asked whether “the government” should get to decide about abortion or “the family” should. “The family” meaning images of fathers/husbands and sometimes even clergy. But the activists then watched how difficult it became to explain why there shouldn’t be a parental notification/approval law if “the family” should get to decide. Or why if “the government” doesn’t get to decide why should pay for abortions for women who couldn’t afford it? Live by the anti-government theme, die by the anti-government theme.

In order to attract conservative voters or weak “pro-choice” ones, abortion battles sometimes became only about whether a bill affected rape victims – as if they were the only women who deserved the right to abortion (although many voters clearly thought so). There was no greater symbol than the 14-year-old rape victim who would be denied an abortion by some bills even if “the family” wanted it.

Of course not everyone thought the various campaign battles should hinge on whether abortions would be accessible for those who “deserved” it (ie rape victims) or those who were using abortion for “birth control” (ie any other abortion). To be fair to the campaign consultants, sometimes this tactic worked. But others, including a young Dawn Johnson, felt that the anti-women attitudes of a majority of voters were simply yet another obstacle to tackle. It was better to try a long-term campaign to move them to the pro-choice side rather than trying to get around such attitudes with clever campaigns and/or some real compromises on issue of “choice.”

This essential conflict is a constant issue with pro-choice politics: support a weak pro-choice candidate, or stay out of the election and allow a virulently anti-choice conservative to win? Compromise a pro-choice bill with amendments to get it passed, or not compromise and get no bill? Work behinds the scene to modify the worse aspects of an anti-choice bill that’s likely to pass, or bring in the cavalry even if such tactics mean the end of any back-door deal modifications?

The hard fact is that while a majority of Americans do not want abortion to be banned, there seems to be no end to the amount of acceptable barriers to access. As long as it’s still “legal” the other real barriers: cost, distance, or the indignities: moralist scripts, waiting periods, ultrasounds, and harassment at getting inside clinics, seem not to bother a majority of the voting public. If legal abortion was only available from clinics in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York – but not federally outlawed — how much of the public would find that an acceptable amount of access? (Not that such a “compromise” would ever stop efforts to shut down whatever would be the last clinic in America.)

While pro-choice groups spend a lot of time playing defense, perhaps it’s time to play offense? We do need to perhaps spend some time convincing the public to be more pro-choice, not just with the threat that access is going away but that “choice” with all those types of barriers should matter to all women. It’s been said that the reason activists don’t spend money on advertising is because, unlike the anti-choice side, we’re too busy actually helping women. While “abortion-rights brand building” may seem to be a waste of resources when there are so many fires to put out, perhaps it’s time for our side to put up bus ads and billboards. Not to “promote abortion” but to promote the issue that lack of access should matter to voters.

Abortion is like any other polarizing issue, from the civil rights reform of the ‘60s to the anti-immigrant attitudes of today. It’s devilishly hard to change minds that are so closed. And yet we have to try. We need to expand our audience so our path of compromise isn’t always the narrow choice. The Center for Reproductive Right’s video is a good step. But we need to make such a campaign far more “mainstream” to reach people who wouldn’t see it unless they are already pro-choice.

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