The More Things Change

Continuing Threats to Reproductive Freedom

About Pam Chamberlain

In the run-up to the August 2009 Congressional recess, TV ads on health care reform hit the airwaves. The Family Research Council’s political action committee launched a five-state effort to squash a comprehensive health care bill with their spot, set in the future after a liberal version of health care reform has passed. The ad features an elderly couple clearly upset that insurance will not pay for the husband’s needed surgery. The man complains that the federal government funds Planned Parenthood, forcing taxpayers to pay for abortions but not for his operation.  An announcer warns: “Our greatest generation, denied care; our future generation, denied life. Stop the government takeover of health care.” 1

As the Obama-created summer 2009 deadline for a version of health care reform legislation drew close, the Christian Right inserted an old standby element in the debate: the threat of federally funded abortions. Conservative beltway strategists recognized an opportunity to build the social conservatives’ base by cultivating fear among many people who are uncertain about their own health care future.

Some 20 conservative congressional Democrats, the prolife equivalent of the so-called “Blue Dogs,” mobilized around the possibility that abortion funding would be included, even by a lack of reference to the specific procedure, causing some realignment of potential votes. Prolife organizations joined the fray with a webinar, “Stop the Abortion Mandate,” hosted by 70 prolife organizations who claimed an audience of over 36,000 people.2 “Unless you can specifically exclude abortion, it will be part of any federalized health care system,” said Charmaine Yoest, executive director of Americans United for Life.3  Of course, most federal funding for abortions has been prohibited since 1976 by the Hyde Amendment.4

Nancy Keenan, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the campaign for what it was: “What [Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council] and his allies are demanding is a new nationwide abortion ban in the private health insurance market.”5

In this way the antichoice Right began its attempt to turn the health care debate into a rallying cry against abortion, while simultaneously demonstrating its muscle  on Capitol Hill. Linked with conservative caucuses in the House and Senate who worked feverishly to cut the costs of a reform package, the social conservatives contributed to the slowdown of negotiations that prevented legislation reaching the floor of Congress by the August recess.

What has motivated such unwavering opposition? Whether around health reform or sexuality education, the Right’s anti-choice campaigns repeatedly draw deeply on their supporters’ beliefs and fears, including the sense that modern values are usurping “traditional,” Christian ones and a drumbeat of anxiety about women’s power.6 The health care campaign also illustrates the anti-abortion Right’s favorite tactic: the patient erection of barrier after barrier in locality after locality against women’s access to reproductive services. This approach evolved over time following a 20-year failure to overturn the 1974 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion. Opposing abortion continues to be a favorite activity of the Right, in part because it carries such salient symbolic power.

But abortion is by no means the only reproductive issue that the Right targets. They oppose using tax dollars for a wide range of additional services, from contraception and sexuality education to tolerance for diverse family structures and parenting styles. Challenges to patriarchal values invoke fear, not just about women’s issues but also around any threat to the political or economic status quo. And opposition to public funding of such services, which appeals to “small government” supporters, affects poor women and women of color the most, exacerbating race and class inequities.
Reviewing the scope of opposition in the last decade reveals some interesting patterns.
Some of these campaigns are confrontational, like individuals who stalk and harass abortion providers and their patients. Dr. George Tiller’s assassination in May 2009 and its aftermath is a tragic example of an extreme form of such militancy. Others focus on more conventional activities like legislative lobbying.  But what unites these efforts is the core belief that abortion must be stopped.

Reframing the Debate: Conservative Activism since 2000

While abortion remains legal, this incremental strategy means abortion services are increasingly difficult to obtain. Both inside the United States and internationally incremental obstacles to abortion access function like glass shards on a road, making it harder for women to reach their reproductive goals. Some of these obstacles are obvious: state laws that require waiting periods or counseling sessions that include ultrasound images, “education” about the alleged harm of abortion, or parental notification requirements for minors.

Some are less in the public eye, like the administrative trivia heaped on abortion clinics through so-called “TRAP” laws, Targeted Regulations for Abortion Providers. Designed to harass clinics and their employees, these mostly local policies add unnecessary hurdles to abortion access. An example is the South Dakota informed consent law, one of several dozen similar state laws that require abortion providers to inform women that abortion takes the life of a human being and carries with it health risks.7 Another is designed to regulate the width of hallways in clinic buildings.8

More directly, multiple state and federal laws passed since 2000 limit access to abortion. For instance, as of the summer of 2009, all but ten states have passed laws requiring some form of parental notification before a minor’s abortion, the result of dogged local organizing. Another popular tactic: state and federal “conscience clause” regulations allowing medical personnel to opt out of providing reproductive services (see box). At the federal level, the Supreme Court in 2007 upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. In 2004, after five years of lobbying, Congress passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act establishing that a fetus can be a victim of violent crime.

On the other hand, opponents failed to block the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from approving Plan B, popularly known as the morning after pill, which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 120 hours of having unprotected sex. Just this April, bowing to a court order, the FDA made it available without restriction to 17 year olds.9  After twelve years of successful delay, conservative activists were ultimately unable to stop the Clinton Administration from approving “RU 486,” now referred to by its brand name Mifeprex, a medication used to induce abortion in the first two months of pregnancy. In combination with Misoprostol, it is now a widely used alternative to surgical abortions.

Within days of taking office in 2009, President Obama also lifted the “global gag rule” preventing U.S. foreign aid funds from going to organizations that support or provide abortion. Despite that setback, the anti-choice forces continue their two-decades long campaign to end abortion globally. The Helms Amendment, in effect since 1973, still prohibits U.S. funds from being used to support abortions through foreign aid. Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. Christian Right has invested resources at the United Nations to bring an anti-abortion position to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), official U.S. government delegations, and sympathetic governments in this important international diplomatic venue. The Right has defined the “right to life” as a human right, bringing a new, “friendlier” frame to the international reproductive rights debate. At the same time they have cultivated a growing distrust of the U.N. among pro-life activists. Despite strong advocacy from progressive NGOs, they continue trying to insert a pro-life, pro-abstinence position to influence funding and policy development at the international level.10

Three Current Anti-Abortion Arguments

Despite the range of attacks on multiple reproductive issues, opposition to abortion remains a lynchpin of conservative organizing. Whittling away at abortion rights from multiple angles provides continuous opportunities for movement supporters to stay active; there is always another campaign that needs their help. To maintain high public interest and mobilization, anti-choice forces deploy carefully crafted claims asserting both moral superiority and an obligation to act. Their main arguments can be summarized  by the following three phrases: “The Culture of Life Must Resist the Culture of Death,”  “Women Must be Protected from Harm,” and “The Fetus is a Person.”

“The Culture of Life Requires Us to Oppose Abortion”

Drawing on Roman Catholicism’s idea of the culture of life, conservative strategists have managed to unite campaigns against abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research as part of a “Culture of Death.” Their own position, of course, reflects a “Culture of Life.” For them, this so-called Culture of Death could include any barrier or chemical contraceptive device, and it is embodied in incidents like the 2005 Terri Schiavo case, in which the husband and parents of a severely injured woman fought over her end of life rights for seven years. Even a secular worldview analyzing events not as acts of God but as the interplay of human relationships is seen as cheapening the sacred idea of life and must be challenged as part of the culture of death.11 This frame is effective in its simplicity, using an absolute polarization of positions that says, “Either you are for life, or against it.” Devout Christians who accept the frame of a Culture of Life feel a moral imperative to act against abortion and other elements that run contrary to their beliefs.
This stark moralism nurtures a return to the shame about having an abortion, an emotion encouraged by its past illegality and also because of the opposition of conservative religious groups. In recent years both conservative Roman Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion activists have sought to restigmatize the procedure.12 The shaming of women has become so commonplace that public figures including such stalwart pro-choice politicians as Hillary Clinton have described abortion as a “tragic” choice.13

One arena where anti-abortion activists have found growing success is in popularizing, as a matter of conscience, the right of pharmacists, nurses, doctors and others to refuse to dispense care related to abortion and birth control. In the 1980s and ’90s activists organized “pro-life” physicians to state publicly that they would refuse to perform or assist in abortions. Activists successfully limited the number of medical students who were trained in basic abortion techniques. They organized pharmacists to refuse to dispense the morning after pill as violating their moral opposition to abortion.  And they have lobbied for “conscience clauses” to be enacted as state laws, protecting health care providers and even facility employees who refuse to treat or dispense despite their duty to do so. As of the summer of 2009, 46 states allow some health care providers to refuse to provide abortion services, and 13 states have some form of refusal clause around providing contraceptive services. (see box)14

Fathers of “unborn children” are another growing constituency. What once was an early tactic to challenge Roe, organizing fathers has again become popular. Influenced by the fathers’ rights movement, which lobbies for divorce and custody laws that favor men, groups of anti-abortion fathers now identify as a class of individuals whose rights have been violated by women they say did not involve them in the decision to have an abortion.15 Anti-choice groups like the National Right to Life Committee have begun to assert that men are victims of abortion, claiming another class of people injured by the procedure.16

“Women Must be Protected from Harm”

Despite the reality that an abortion is safer than childbirth, anti-abortion organizers have increasingly framed the procedure as harmful to women.17 Various spokespeople claim that they are sympathetic to a woman who faces an unintended pregnancy and are only concerned for her health and well being. But upon examination, it becomes clear that their concern about the alleged physical and mental health risks is a vehicle for their personal moral objections to abortion. Nevertheless, the faulty notions that abortion necessarily causes depression, complications in later pregnancies, and that it increases the risk for breast cancer and even suicide are dangerous and misleading narratives that have unfortunately been asserted often enough to enter common conversation.

This “woman-centered” posture has attracted those who are sympathetic to a pro-woman argument, including pro-life feminists who feel women deserve better treatment. Such reasoning is similar to arguments that seek to protect youth from unintended pregnancies, disease, and even death by discouraging premarital sexual activity. In both cases the underlying motivations for such apparent compassion are the same: social control of sexuality that threatens the status quo and  the cultivation of a mass political movement to support such conservative ideas.

A more recent trend in this “woman-centered” agenda is to assert that since abortions are harmful to women, they must be made rare. The phrase “abortion reduction” resonates for groups representing a wide spectrum of political beliefs about abortion, including the Obama administration. This debate, however, was initiated and driven by conservative strategists from groups such as Third Way who have called for ways to seek “common ground” with pro-choice advocates. Despite an appearance of compromise, the consistent long-term goal of the anti-abortion movement has remained steady: ending legal abortion altogether. However attractive the issue of common ground is to those weary of the culture wars, it should be examined carefully for its historical roots, current tactics, and ultimate impact.

By focusing only on cutting the number of abortions performed, some conservative advocates of abortion reduction hope to appeal to moderates, including some communities of faith, while studiously avoiding the factors that contribute to the need for abortions. Factors contributing to a need for abortion include inadequate sexuality education or health care, economic distress, lack of a supportive partner, and the dismissal of the ability of a woman to make her own decisions. Not addressing these needs through better family planning and more economic support, while accepting the logic of “abortion reduction,” could strengthen the argument for further limiting access to the procedure – a clear anti-choice strategy.

In fact, some conservatives have floated the idea that there is no such thing as a need for abortion, which in their minds can always be circumvented by carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term or by adoption. Deirdre McQuaid, spokesperson for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, claimed:

The phrase “reducing the need for abortion” is not a common-ground phrase. We would say that there is no need for abortion, that abortions are signs that we have not met the needs of women. There is no authentic need for abortion.18

Rather than the vague concept of “abortion reduction,” pro-choice groups have suggested using “reducing unwanted pregnancies” instead, a phrase that unambiguously describes the real issue.

A well-developed means by which activists claim to demonstrate “care” for women is by running crisis pregnancy centers, which they often represent as counseling centers for pregnant women who need advice about their options. In reality, by locating near abortion clinics or schools, they can attract women who may mistake them for a medical facility that provides abortion services. Once inside, women are presented with arguments designed to dissuade them from undergoing an abortion.  The ultrasound image has become a powerful tool to interrupt some women’s plans for abortion; seeing an image of one’s fetus can surface moral uncertainties about the procedure. Beginning in 2001, some of the centers received public funding, including support for abstinence education through the Community Based Abstinence Education Act (CBAE), although that strand of funding has ended under the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the anti-choice movement continues to fundraise for the placement of ultrasound machines in their clinics, another tactic designed to keep their base motivated.

“Fetal Personhood”

A persistent conservative frame about abortion focuses not on the woman but on the fetus, which is increasingly defined as a human being from the moment of conception. Accepting “fetal personhood” as a valid idea repositions the debate about abortion away from a woman’s right to self determination and focuses instead on the alleged human rights of the fetus. Campaigns to support the civil rights of fetuses have sprung up, encouraging legislation like Colorado’s unsuccessful Amendment 48 in 2008 and the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act enacted in 2004.19  In an era of expanding use of human rights as a frame for progressive organizing, this emphasis on fetal rights has created an alternative, opportunistic use of a human rights framework for conservative ends that challenges women’s rights.

Opposition to human embryonic stem cell research peaked during the first years after 2000 when work on embryonic stem cells was prohibited by then-President Bush and has declined as adult stem cell research begins to look like a promising alternative. When President Obama lifted the restrictions on stem cell research in March 2009, the debate reopened with conservatives arguing that research on embryonic stem cells constituted the killing of a human. Focus on the Family attempted to capitalize on the shared liberal and conservative objections to egg donations by appropriating feminist rhetoric about the harmful effects of egg harvesting, in their campaign, Women’s Voices Against Cloning.

In the last decade, some African-American anti-abortion spokespeople have reinvigorated the Black Nationalist message that widespread use of abortion in their communities is a form of Black genocide. This approach has been influenced by strategists like White theologian Francis Schaeffer who began to use a racially charged frame to talk about abortion in the 1970s. Without abortion, many more African-American babies would have been born in the United States, they say. According to pundits like Alveda King and Bishop Harry Jackson, the current rate of abortion among African-American women is a tragedy of mammoth proportions. Jackson calls abortion “a major crime,” while King asserts that supporting abortion is a deliberate racist attempt to diminish the power of African Americans in this country.

Access to contraception and abortion became easier with other reproductive options like emergency contraception and medication (non-surgical) abortion. These products have challenged anti-abortion activists to come up with an approach that disparages the pills themselves as dangerous and encouraging of immoral behavior. Years of effort to prevent their manufacture and distribution have so far not been able to stop their widespread use. Recently, some opponents of abortion have argued that Plan B (emergency contraception) does indeed trigger an abortion, an argument that involves defining the beginning of life at the moment of fertilization rather than at implantation, which occurs afterwards.

Another tactic is to generalize that all contraception is wrong because it violates church teachings, as with the renewed interest in the Roman Catholic Church’s 1968 encyclical on the matter, Humanae Vitae. This has resulted in some back and forth wrangling at the federal level around personal conscience. (See box.)

Widening the Lens: Opposing More than Abortion and Contraception

Energizing the anti-choice movement further are efforts to limit government support for  other reproductive services such as fertility treatments and certain prenatal and children’s health programs. By limiting publicly-funded coverage, they  directly target  low-income women’s reproductive rights.

In this campaign, conservative activists capitalize on existing prejudices against vulnerable groups to further their own political goals. For instance, anti-immigrant feelings have been channeled into resentment about health care for undocumented residents. Critics scapegoat “anchor babies,” children of immigrants whom critics say intentionally were born in the United States to secure the parents’ legal immigration status. Persistent homophobic attitudes allow “pro-family” groups to criticize access to reproductive technologies for LGBT people who want children. This dovetails with the campaign against gay rights– a financial “cash cow” for the Christian Right.

The last decade has been a turning point for progressive activists in understanding how the Right functions around reproductive issues. As social conservatives sharpened their attacks on women and their health and well-being, awareness has grown that the Right links its opposition to reproductive rights with a broader agenda of conservative resistance to social change. The Christian Right has used the social issues of reproductive rights, and same sex marriage and other LGBT equality issues, as the foundation on which to build and sustain its political power.

The strengthening  of the Reproductive Justice movement since 2000 is the best hope for responding to the Right’s attacks on women,  because it connects the dots showing how women actually go about making and sustaining a family in rural Idaho, inner city Atlanta, and anywhere in between.  Progressive women of color and their allies focused their ideas into a movement that considers how women are affected differently by policies on abortion, health care, and social supports as a result of their class, age, sexual orientation, and race. Activists from the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, and others focus attention on access to abortion and contraception along with the freedom to decide how and when to have children, readily available and accurate information about women’s health and sexuality, and the guarantee of social and economic supports to realize women’s decisions about their lives.20

The undeniable impact of the Right is revealed in impoverished families struggling to stay together when wages are low and child care inaccessible. It also is apparent when a woman feels forced to have a child because there is no affordable abortion facility anywhere nearby. Reproductive Justice addresses the realities of women’s lived experience, but it also exposes the undeniable outcomes of the Right’s attacks.
This movement gives us a blueprint for how to respond, a vital resource since there is no indication that anti-choice forces will slacken off in pursuit of their goals. On the contrary, Obama’s election has propelled the Right into a frenzy of state and federal politicking. The health care debate is just one example of renewed opposition. Abortion remains legal, but the Right’s combination of skillfully refined rhetoric and carefully chosen tactics have prevented many women, especially targeted and marginalized ones, from gaining access not only to abortion services but to the wider range of reproductive services and rights. Challenging such attacks requires an untangling of the interrelationships and an awareness of how and why they function as they do.

Conscience Clauses are Only a Beginning

Before Congress passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976, about a third of all abortions performed in the United States were for poor women on Medicaid. “No other medical procedure was singled out for exclusion,” National Network of Abortion Funds reported. “Today, 33 states have followed suit, prohibiting state Medicaid funding as well.” All but one of these states (South Dakota) follows the Hyde exceptions of rape, incest, or life endangerment.21 The report details the disproportionate burdens placed on disadvantaged women, and observes that “women of color disproportionately depend on such coverage, making abortion funding a matter of racial justice as well as economic justice and women’s rights.”

But the federal restrictions do not stop with Medicaid. Over the years, Congress has also legislated against access to abortion via federal health plans, women in the military and Peace Corps, disabled women, residents of the District of Columbia, federal prisoners, and women covered by the Indian Health Service.  Indeed, it could be fairly argued that except for the legal right to an abortion, federal policies constitute the greatest abortion reduction program of all.  “Prior to 1996,” states NNAF report, “legal immigrants and U.S. citizens were equally eligible for Medicaid.” But the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Clinton required a five-year waiting period before most new legal immigrants could even apply. Less than half of the states fill in the five year gap with their own funds, and nine states permanently deny Medicaid coverage to non-citizen residents.

An additional issue has been the matter of “conscience clauses.” The original conscience clause legislation passed in 1973 in the wake of Roe “states that public officials may not require individuals or entities who receive certain public funds to perform abortion or sterilization procedures or to make facilities or personnel available for the performance of such procedures if such performance “would be contrary to [the individual or entity’s] religious beliefs or moral convictions.22 This has allowed even major medical facilities such as Catholic hospitals to refuse to deal with abortions without jeopardizing their ability to receive public grants and contracts or affect their tax exempt status. A new rule promulgated late in the Bush administration expanded and particularized the exemptions, stating that health workers may even refuse to provide information or advice regarding abortion. At this writing, the Obama administration has indicated it will rescind the Bush rule, but leave some kind “reasonable” exemptions in place.

What we see now is a far ranging effort on the part of anti-abortion forces to use conscience clauses as wedge, pitting religious supremacist notions of religious freedom against the civil and human rights of others. – Frederick Clarkson

  1. “After a Government Health Care Takeover,” Family Research Council Action, Washington, D.C. July 2009, (Video)
  2. stoptheabortionmandate
  3. James Oliphant, “Health care Debate’s Next Hurdle: Abortion, LA Times, July 28, 2009.
  4. Jamie Brooks et al, “The Hyde Amendment, a Violation of Human Rights,” (Chapel Hill: Ipas, 2006). (PDF)
  5. Nancy Keenan, “Letter to the Editor, July 29, 2009″.
  6. Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty, “Reproducing Patriarchy,” Defending Reproductive Rights (Somerville MA: Political Research Associates, 2000), pp. 1-24.
  7. Chinué Turner Richardson and Elizabeth Nash, “Misinformed Consent: The Medical Accuracy of State-Developed Abortion Counseling Materials,” Guttmacher Policy Review, 9, 4, Fall 2006.
  8. Barry Yeoman, “The Quiet War on Abortion,”  Mother Jones, September/October, 2001.
  9. FDA Approves Plan B Over-the-Counter Access for 17-Year-Olds,” Guttmacher Institute, April 24, 2009.
  10. Pam Chamberlain, “UNdoing Reproductive Freedom: Christian Right NGOs  Target the UN,” Political Research Associates Special Report, December 2006.
  11. See: “About Us,” Gospel of Life Ministries, and  “The Vatican’s Summary of Evangelium Vitae”.
  12. Fred Barnes, “Safe, Legal, and Stigmatized,” Human Life Review Winter, 2003.
  13. Patrick Healy, “Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions,” New York Times, January 25, 2005, In a challenge to this, Reverend Katherine H. Ragsdale, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, presents an alternative view when she calls abortion a “blessing,” much to the consternation of her conservative critics. Katherine Ragsdale, “Remarks,” Birmingham, AL July 21, 2005.
  14. Refusing to Provide Health Services, State Policies in Brief, (New York: Guttmacher Institute) 2009. (PDF)
  15. Michael Leaser, “Fathers in Crisis: Dads are Key to Preventing Abortion,” Celebrate Life, July-August 2006, 42-45. (PDF)
  16. Eleanor J. Bader, “Male Victims of Abortion: New Theme of Right to Life Committee,” The Public Eye, Fall 2007.
  17. See for example: National Right to Life Committee, “Is Abortion Safe?” from Abortion: Some Medical facts.
  18. Dan Gilgoff, “White House Discerns ‘Need for Abortion,’ But Some Disagree,” U.S. News and World Report, June 30, 2009.
  19. “Personhood ’08 Colorado,” the website of the anti-choice group Colorado for Equal Rights,; for the text of the law, click here.
  20. Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, “A New Vision for advancing our movement for reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice.” (PDF)
  21. Shawn Towey, Stephanie Poggi and Rachael Roth,  “Abortion Funding:  A Matter of Justice,” National Network of Abortion Funds, Boston, Mass. 2005. (PDF)
  22. Jody Feder, The History and Effect of Conscience Clause Laws, American Law Division, Congressional Research Service, January 14, 2005.

Pam Chamberlain is a former senior researcher at Political Research Associates, with an expertise in gender justice, education, and campus issues.