Republicans shun the
'A' word ...but that has not stopped them from opposing
abortion in practice
By David Nolan
Here in the USA, it has become rather amusing to watch candidates
for the Republican presidential nomination twist themselves
into ever-tighter knots, to avoid saying anything definitive
Frontrunners George W Bush and Elizabeth Dole have both
announced that they will not push for a constitutional amendment
to ban abortion. Dole said that although she is 'pro-life',
an outright ban on abortion was 'irrelevant' and a low priority.
As part of his 'compassionate conservatism' theme, Bush
claimed that 'you can't change the law, you have to change
the hearts and minds of the country'. Neither Bush nor Dole
will require their nominees for the Supreme Court to pass
an 'anti-abortion litmus test'. Bush has also said that
his running mate for vice-president need not oppose abortion,
opening the possibility of choosing a pro-choice running
mate who could attract Clinton/ Dole-hating Democrats and
Republicans who could not vote for an anti-abortion candidate.
It seems that finally, pragmatic and moderate Republican
Party members have cottoned on to the fact that the party's
commitment to a constitutional ban on abortion deters women
and moderate voters. But we should be clear that none of
these people are about to join an abortion rights group.
Their legislative history alone shows how vehemently anti-abortion
According to a survey by the National Abortion and Reproductive
Rights Action League (NARAL), George W Bush has signed 18
anti-choice provisions while governor of Texas and is 'the
most anti-choice governor in the country'; and John McCain,
another candidate claiming to equivocate on the abortion
issue, voted on 82 of 86 occasions to restrict reproductive
choices for women. Other prominent candidates Dole, Buchanan,
Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes have not held elective office
but support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
On one level, it is difficult to see why the Republicans
are moving away from the issue that has defined them over
the past 25 years; especially as, according to the polls,
more and more Americans feel uncomfortable about abortion.
A New York Times/CBS News poll in 1998 claimed that as many
as 50 percent of Americans equate abortion to murder; many
now consider the reasons given for abortions to be trivial;
and only 32 percent believe abortion should be generally
available to all women. However, when it came to the crunch
question, about a constitutional ban on all abortions, 75
percent demurred, considering such a move too extreme.
Therein lies the nub of the issue. The Republican stance
on abortion was unequivocal, absolute. In an era when absolutes
are frowned on, it became too extreme - believing in something
so strongly was guaranteed to drive people away. Yet although
Republicans have become reluctant to air strong views about
this issue, Republican-dominated legislatures, at both a
federal and state level, have spent the past several years
introducing and passing a series of laws that restrict access
to abortion in practice.
Many new laws are on the cards. According to the Center
for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP), nearly 200 bills
in 44 states that would curtail reproductive rights were
due to be decided in 1999. But, in a move designed to ease
the passage of these laws, some of the new proposals do
not even refer to abortion. In Missouri, for example, the
Infant Protection Act outlawing infanticide was drafted
in such a way that it could prevent some first-trimester
A more serious move was passed by Congress in October. Called
the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the law granted new
legal status to 'unborn children' under a cloak of fighting
crime. The law establishes zygotes, blastocysts, embryos
and fetuses as separate persons under federal law, essentially
bestowing legal personhood on the fetus - a long-term aim
of the anti-abortion lobby. It was passed 254-172, far from
the two-thirds majority required to overcome a likely Clinton
veto. While it specifically excludes abortion, it was, according
to an editorial in the Washington Post, 'a clever, if transparent
effort to establish a foothold in the law for the idea that
killing a fetus can be murder'. And it is little surprise
that the bill was drafted by the National Right to Life
Committee and sponsored by hard-line anti-abortion congressmen
Lindsey Graham, Charles Canady and Chris Smith.
It should be said that many of these behind-the-scenes anti-abortion
moves are supported by Democrats, and that many are thrown
out by the courts. But many more remain on the statute books.
According to the latest report from the Alan Guttmacher
Institute, 29 states require parental involvement in minors'
abortion decisions; 22 states require state-directed counselling
before an abortion, with 14 of those requiring a mandatory
delay following the counselling; 14 states restrict private
and/or public employee insurance coverage for abortion;
34 states restrict Medicaid-funded abortion except in cases
of rape, incest or when the woman's life is endangered;
29 states have passed laws banning 'partial birth abortion'
(in 20 the laws have been blocked by state or federal courts);
and 40 states restrict later abortions.
The CRLP has documented a host of other attempts to restrict
access to abortion, including the introduction of needless
regulations for clinics, covering such vital elements of
treatment as doorway width and lawn care. If passed, other
laws will introduce penalties for women whose behaviour
during pregnancy may harm the fetus; force women to inform
the 'father' about an abortion; and force funding for anti-abortion
groups. In addition to all this, there are vast swathes
of the mid-western and southern states with few, if any,
abortion providers, and at least 90 small cities have no
provider at all.
Now we have the almost surreal situation that while the
Republican candidates for the presidency avoid any suggestion
that they will curtail abortion rights, their shock troops
throughout the country have successfully curtailed women's
access to services. The Republican Party appears to have
instinctively taken on board the notion that while extreme
opposition to abortion was a vote loser, repackaging the
same sentiment in rights-based language, in this case 'fetal
rights', can still have some appeal. While the presidential
veto and the balance of forces in the Supreme Court have
defended women's constitutional rights on paper, the reality
is that abortion services throughout the USA have been restricted
by innovative attacks through the back door from a small
group of determined conservatives.
This article appears the November (1999) edition of LM magazine.
The LM website can be found at http://www.informinc.co.uk