March to a Crossroads on Abortion

The Nation
MAY 8, 1989


This article prompted some heated letters to The Nation, which follows the article, along with my response

          I marched for abortion rights on April 9 with two high-school freshmen—my daughter Corey and her friend Kate—both so wide-eyed and excited they didn’t even complain about being hungry. But of course, as Corey kept saying, she  has been going on abortion marches since she was 3. That was the year of the Hyde amendment, which restricted public funding for abortions. She’s 14 now; her whole life has been punctuated by this fight.
          Though the end’s not in sight, I think April 9 will prove to be a crossroads in this long struggle. Even if the Supreme Court does its damnedest, we know who we are now, and how strong. Many of us worried about the yuppies, fearing that, since they’ve always had abortion rights, they wouldn’t know enough to fight for them until it was too late. We’re not worried anymore. Half the people at this march must have been under 35.Three hundred thousand, six hundred thousand—after a certain number, who can count? The crowd was so thick I couldn’t beat my way through it or find anyone I was looking for—but what a treat to go to a demonstration where I knew hardly a soul!
          They came from everywhere: whole delegations from Texas and Maine and California; from Carleton College and Brandeis University and the University of Kentucky. Wisconsin and  Vermont ran out of buses and couldn’t meet the demand. There were lots  of mother-daughter teams, and lots of men. 
          The spirit was calm determination, for the most part, with a little ferocity on the part of some, like the women who run the Dallas abortion clinic that supported the original Jane Roe suit; they wore cowboy hats with wire hangers stuck through them and carried a list of Operation Rescuers who’ve been busted. They are really on the line down there; Roe had her house shot at just the other day. It’s war in Florida too; two clinics were torched the day of the demonstration, and doctors who perform abortions are regularly denied hospital privileges.
          But after this march, there can be no doubt who’s in the mainstream on this issue. I have never seen so many straight-looking people in one place in my life, let alone in a demonstration. This must have been the first march for an awful lot of them. Ann Snitow, who organized the No More Nice Girls delegation (they dressed in black and in chains, and were “pregnant” with pillow bellies) said, “It was the heartland—family and Kalamazoo and union. It was the solid Protestant core of America, who really do believe in individual rights and don’t want anybody messing with theirs!”
          It was a tolerant march, welcoming to difference. Despite the National Organization for Women’s plea to wear virginal white like the suffragists (most of whom had other women do their laundry), nobody looked askance at the outlandish outfits of No More Nice Girls or the two punks in kilts with vaselined hair who marched near us. Many people carried  prefab pro-choice signs, but there were plenty of homemade ones, ranging from “There Are More of Us Than You Think in Orange County” to “Equality, Planning, and Choice” to “Free Women, Free Bodies.” There was the young man with his “Men Who Will Not Take Responsibility for Birth Control Should Fuck Themselves” and the two women proclaiming they were “Mormons for Choice.” The latter would “probably be kicked out of the church by sundown,” muttered Linda Nochlin, marching near me.
          Everywhere people pushed strollers with placards declaring the occupants to be wanted babies. The delegation from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power bopped by in a conga line chanting, “Keep abortion safe and legal. Act up! Fight back!” The group from “Jane” got its own special cheers. Jane was the women’s liberation abortion network in Chicago in the days of clandestinity, as they say in Latin America. You would call a number, ask for Jane and be passed along until you finally made contact with an abortionist. Jane’s sign read, “We did it before, we can do it again.”
          It was a united march, with no separate agendas for once. This unity has been a long time coming, and the lack of it has hurt us. Of course, the main reason we are teetering on the brink of losing abortion rights is the right-wing offensive of the past twelve years, with church and state tripping over each other in their hurry to crush women. But we have had weaknesses—in the women’s movement, the abortion rights movement and on the left—and we are paying for them.
          The women’s movement, having won the right to abortion, immediately demobilized. The left-wing women’s organizations had begun to disintegrate by the mid-1970s and were in no shape to fight the right-to-lifers’ onslaught when it began. Meanwhile, NOW singlemindedly pursued the Equal Rights Amendment and refused to work on anything else (or in coalition with anybody else) until 1985. Only with the defeat of the E.R.A. did NOW begin to understand that it must fight the right-wing backlash on a wider battlefield. Its 1986 march on Washington for abortion rights attracted 125,000 and was the largest pro-choice action up to that time. But 1986 was already late in the game, and the conservatives had the advantage of momentum.
          One of the few women’s groups that developed a strategy to meet the changing situation was the New York City-based Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA). Its newly revised pamphlet, ‘Women Under Attack” (South End Press), provides a concise and readable account of the backlash and of other developments. CARASA developed a strategy of linking abortion rights and sterilization abuse as “two sides of the same coin, since poor women, denied funding for abortion [by the 1977 Hyde amendment], might be coerced into sterilization, which, by contrast, was funded 90 percent by the government.” By making this link, CARASA and the reproductive rights groups that united with it in a national network tried to build unity across race and class lines, the lack of which “had been one of the failings of the family limitation movement.”
          This is an understatement. For years before the passage of the Hyde amendment, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), as well as Planned Parenthood, had asked for support on the ground that giving women abortion rights would cost less money than supporting welfare babies. No wonder black activists saw a genocidal thrust in such campaigns for choice.
          CARASA and its sister groups put abortion rights In the context of a program of reproductive freedom, which comprised a broad list of demands, including funding for the medical care and social services necessary to support poor women’s right to have children. Struggling to redefine the problem in those terms, the reproductive rights groups gradually moved mainstream organizations like NARAL away from population control rhetoric toward recognition of women’s need for a wide range of reproductive choices. Without this change in the abortion rights movement, subsequent shifts in the black movement, reflected in the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign’s support of women’s right to choose, would not have been possible.
          Jackson was responding to the fact that poor women and women of color demand abortion rights: Poor women have already lost Medicaid funding in many states, and they and their children are most at risk if abortion is plunged Into illegality. His presence on the speaker’s platform, and the absence of population control slogans at the march, are signs that the movement has matured enough to see that unity is critical, despite the demise of many of the reproductlve rights groups that originally fostered it. There were more women of color at this demonstration thanat any other abortion march I have been in; many of them were teen-agers.
          Though the attack on women’s liberation has been one of the most pronounced features of the conservative backlash, the left has not in general taken women’s issues as its own, and it has been relaxed in its defense of abortion rights. Writers like Christopher Lasch and Jean Bethke Elshtain prefer to defend the family, attributing its disintegration to female selfishness and the power of the women’s movement.  (If the women’s movement had that kind of power, we wouldn’t have to worry about losing abortion rights.) Some coalitions have been willing to include demands for reproductive rights on their solidarity leaflets, but much of the left still sees women as just another special-interest group to be mollified or sacrificed as advantage dictates.
          A recent example is Christopher Hitchens’s column in the April 24 Nation, in which he criticizes feminists as proponents of “disposable fetuses” and, with sweet trust in the state, proposes that “we” address abortion in terms of social needs rather than individual rights. This is to be done via a National Health Service that will give free birth control and prenatal care. (Is it possible that he thinks he is the first person to propose this, and has done so little homework that he is ignorant of the work of the feminist health movement?)
          I don’t know what benign state Hitchens is talking about; it can’t be the one I live in. As for utopian fantasy, mine does not include handing over the rights to my body to any state. As a woman, I can no more afford to feel Hitchens’s contempt for what he calls “‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism” than can the millions of Soviet citizens who want glasnost. Hitchens is one more example of the striking fact that men who can eloquently defend the individual right to free speech, as he did in the case of Salman Rushdie, can be completely out to lunch when it comes to women’s individual rights—to the point where they can’t even see the intimate connection between the right to free speech and the right to birth control and abortion, intertwined in the history of this country.
          The right-to-lifers are more up-front; even while they use the language of social needs, their hatred and fear of women is plain on their faces. The last time I made an open-air speech on abortion, a right-to-lifer came up afterward, her fists clenched with the effort not to hit me, her mouth so contorted with rage she could barely speak. “People like you should be boiled alive in oil,” she hissed. Rage like this does not spring from compassion. Despite the disclaimers of The Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff. the Berrigans and others who give the antiabortion movement its left cover, the motor power of this campaign is not love or compassion but rage—the rage of the repressed, who think sex is sin and must be punished. “Doesn’t want a baby? She should have thought of that when she had her fun!” Such is the common coin of street-level right-to-lifers.
          This is why it is so necessary to keep affirming the sexual aspect of the abortion issue and not let it dissolve into mainstream mush or let the issue be defined in terms of the extremes of rape and incest. Most women who get pregnant do so because of voluntary sex; and we cannot afford to abandon the hard-won ground of women’s right to sexual pleasure and autonomy. On the other hand, we have to realize how temporary and fragile this right is without the social backups—health care, housing, day care, a decent income, all the rest—-necessary to permit women a true choice, not only to have abortions but to have children, in the confidence that they can provide for them well.
          The most radical slogan of all may still be the simple one: A woman has the right to a life. One of the women who came to the march was Kitty; ten years ago she was a high- school student in Somerville, Massachusetts. Born into poverty, brought up in the projects, she got pregnant at I5 like her sisters before her. But her teacher was in the women’s movement and took her to have an abortion. Kitty now has a husband, a job and two kids she planned, unlike her sisters, one of whom had three kids before she was 17; the other recently died of AIDS. “That abortion gave me a life,” Kitty says.
          Abortion is as fundamental to women’s liberation as is the right to work, and it should be as central to any left-wing program. Full citizenship—the ability to participate in political movements, to work in the wage economy, to have an independent life—is impossible when a woman is a slave to her own fertility, trapped in an endless, unwilled round of pregnancy after pregnancy, exhausted by childbearing and child care, old at 35.Technological progress is never without ambiguity, but twentieth-century advances in fertility control have laid the basis for a new level of female participation in politics, society, culture and the work force. April 9 demonstrated that the strength of the women’s movement is still growing and is largely untapped.
          Sometimes I think of women’s oppression as an enormous boulder that we are slowly pushing up a steep mountain. Most generations can push it only an inch. Weak generations, or those that hit a rock, may let it slip, and a few million women are crushed. Fortunate generations like mine may get up enough momentum or be helped by favorable terrain enough to go two inches instead of one.
          The long escalator that carried us from the subway to the buses following the march brought this mountain image to mind. Laden with hundreds of women, it lumbered at a forty-five-degree angle toward daylight. Suddenly, I saw the faces of the women at the top light up, and as they began to cheer and wave I looked behind me and saw an endless, Dantesque stream of women, moving steadily out of the Metro and onto the platform, while other trains bearing more thousands were backed up behind, hidden in the shadow of the tunnel.
          Tears came to my eyes, and I thought, What power. If only we used it more often. But we don’t know how. Then I looked at my daughter and the other young girls around me and realized we don’t have to figure that out alone anymore. A new generation is coming of age, our children, whose historical experience is different from ours; they can take up where we leave off. Together we can keep the boulder from slipping down and crushing those beneath. I think we can even push it a few more inches up the mountain.

The Nation printed two letters in response to this article in the issue of July 24/31,1989. 

New York City

           In her otherwise fine article of May 8, “March to a Crossroads on Abortion,” Meredith Tax has included serious misconceptions which should be corrected. “For  years before the passage of the Hyde amendment,” she wrote, “the National Abortion  Rights Action League (NARAL), as well as Planned Parenthood, had asked for support on the ground that giving women abortion rights would cost less money than supporting  welfare babies.”

           As founding chair of NARAL, I assure Tax that no such stance would have been tolerated. Many black and minority leaders were on NARAL‘s board, including March  Hughes Fisher, Aileen Hernandez, Dr. Edgar Keemer and then-Borough President of  Manhattan Percy Sutton. None of them, nor any board member, would have approved  what Tax calls a “genocidal thrust.“

          I was also on the founding board of the National Organization for Women and have  worked with it closely until the present. Tax’s statement that NOW pushed the Equal  Rights Amendment and “refused to work on anything else (or in coalition with anybody  else) until 1985” is an erroneous interpretation. Even at the height of the E.R.A. campaign, NOW never lost sight of the crucial importance of abortion rights, backing the Abortion Rights Mobilization’s case in Federal court on the tax exemption of the  Catholic church, starting in 1980, as just one example.

Lawrence Lader, president
Abortion Rights Mobilization

Nashville, Tenn.

          I was a bit surprised to learn that according to Meredith Tax I have gone the route of  defending the family rather than taking women’s issues seriously. When one has written five books and more than 100 essays on women and politics, it 1s a bit tricky to figure out Tax’s criteria for “taking women’s issues seriously” if lifelong involvement and commitment do not count.

           Tax additionally taxes me (and Christopher Lasch, but he can speak for himself) with attributing the “disintegration” of the family to “female selfishness and the power  of the women’s movement.“ I do not recall having ever made such an argument. Perhaps  Tax was over interpreting my 1979 piece in The Nation, “Feminists Against the Family“  (all right, an unfortunate title).

           What I said there included: (1) By focusing on the family, feminist thinkers opened up “connections between sexuality, authority and power . . . in a provocative way”; (2)  “Women were encouraged to create conceptual and linguistic tools to help them pierce the pattern of social reality. . . .hundreds of women began to view themselves less as passive recipients of revocable privileges and more as active, responsible beings”; and I no doubt began to offend Tax when I indicated that (3) there have been far too many “mean-spirited denunciations of all relations between men and women” together with “expressions of contempt for the female body, for pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing.“
          I don’t know how anyone can read feminist writings of the late 1960s and early 1970s and not find this contempt and such denunciations leaping off the page. I never argued that this was the totality of feminism but that It was one important and troubling feature. It still happens to be the case that most women at some point In their lives will be mothers. That is something worth thinking about in critical ways, yes, but with a generous, not condemnatory, spirit.

      Much feminist argumentation seemed to me then to deepen rather than challenge the asocial individualism of ultraliberalism and consumerism. Tax, I take it, disagrees—a position I find a tad tricky to combine with her professed adherence to “socialism” or “social democracy,” but that is her problem, not mine. But I do wish she would attack me for positions I actually hold rather than to take gratuitous swipes based on claims she has constructed but that I have never made. If she can point to a single text in which I highlight “female selfishness and the power of the women’s movement” as the moving force in “the disintegration of the family” I would be happy to be corrected.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

New York City

           My article discussed the fact that relations between the black movement and people who support abortion rights have improved since the 1960s. The history of this problem goes back to struggles around eugenics and population control policy. (The best discussions of this topic are in Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, Thomas B. Littlewood’s The Politics of Population Control and Rosalind Petchesky’s Abortlon and Woman’s Choice.) My own perspective developed In 1977, the year of the Hyde amendment and the beginning of the government offensive against abortion, which was also the year in which many of us organized to end sterilization abuse of minority women. In the interests of full disclosure. I should say that I was a founder and first co-chair of CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and to End Sterilization Abuse. My feeling that NARAL and Planned Parenthood were not as sensitive to racial and economic issues as they might have been is shaped by the fact that we were allies on abortion and opponents on the regulations to control sterilization abuse.

           People support abortion rights for various reasons: feminists, because they see a woman’s control of her own reproduction as an essential condition of full citizenship; population controllers, because abortion, like birth control and sterilization, is a way to cut down on what they see as a catastrophic population explosion. In the end, feminism and population control ideology are incompatible, for one puts woman’s choice at the center, the other a particular vision of social good. Nevertheless, like many contradictory ideas, they can be found together in the same mind. Larry Lader was not only a board member of NARAL and NOW but of Zero Population Growth and of the Association for Voluntary Sterilization (A.V.S.). He is also the author of Breeding Ourselves to Death. No one could challenge his record of support for abortion rights. But why does he support them, and on whose behalf? Lader states in Abortion, “One-third of all children on welfare today come from neglected homes, ignored and unwanted by either parent. . . . Above all, society must grasp the grim relationship between unwanted children and the violent rebellion of minonty groups.”

           Population control policy-makers support abortion as a last resort for those times when birth control fails; but they are not really happy with most forms of birth control because they see women as too dull-witted or passionate to use them in a responsible fashion; they have always longed for something fool- (or woman-) proof. In the mid-1970s. they thought they had found it in the “mini-laparotomy,” a surgical procedure so fast, cheap and efficient that it could be used to sterilize women in clinics on an outpatient basis. At this point they ran headlong into the women’s health movement.

           Few people now remember the storm that erupted over sterilization abuse in the early 197Os, with the case of the Relf sisters in Mississippi and the scandal of mass, sometimes forced, sterilizations in Puerto Rico, elsewhere in Latin America and in India. In 1973, a handful of women’s health activists, led by Dr. Helen Rodriguez, then of Lincoln Hospital, formed CESA (the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse), which developed guidelines to insure that such sterilizations would not become routine in the United States. Carter Burden introduced these guidelines in the New York City Council in 1977, and they were taken up by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (H.E.W.) in 1979. The guidelines had two key provisions: informed consent in the preferred language of the patient, and a thirty-day waiting period between the signing of the consent form and the sterilization procedure. The waiting period was to prevent a situation in which patients were asked to sign a sterilization consent form while in labor, under anesthesia or when asking for an abortion.

           At this time, Fran Nathan was the leader of New York NARAL. Accordmg to Karen Stamm, then at CESA, now chair of the sterilization committee of the National Women’s Health Network, "Fran Nathan actively lobbied against the sterilization bill, with the assistance of another past president of NARAL. A.V.S. and Planned Parenthood also testified against the New York guidelines. All three organizations spoke against the national guidelines introduced in H.E.W., where NARAL testified that, since abortion funding had already been restricted, it would be cruel to poor women to restrict their access to sterilization." With the same information, CARASA drew the opposite conclusion: the fact that the Carter Administration had cut off funds for Medicaid abortions but was ready and eager to fund Medicaid sterilizations set up a situation of economic coercion, in which poor women would not be free to choose.

           The guidelines were controversial even among feminists. We felt it was imperative that white feminists join black and Latino ones to prevent abuse. But NOW split on the issue: New York City NOW supported the sterilization guidelines, while California opposed them on the ground that any government interference in reproduction was a bad precedent. In October 1978, NOW’s national convention voted against them, though by such a small majority that this decision was not publicized.

           As for whether or not NOW joined in coalitions, in my work in CARASA I was frequently told that national NOW had passed a resolution forbidding coalition work. Certainly that is what leaders of New York NOW said whenever they refused to work with us on demonstrations, although they were generally reluctant to work with groups they felt were left-wing or ’marginal.” Joining Larry Lader in a lawsuit is clearly a different question.

           The point of all this is not to reopen old wounds but to say that the unity of this year’s abortion march is the product of years of political struggle. Hopefully it represents a new maturity and ability to work together. All of us have made mistakes; we have an obligation to the future, and to our own history, to learn from them, not to pretend they never happened.

           On to Jean Elshtain, who was offended by one offhand mention of her name. I never said she didn’t take women’s issues seriously. I said, "the left has not in general taken women’s issues as its own, and it has been relaxed in its defense of abortion rights. Writers like Christopher Lasch and Jean Bethke Elshtain prefer to defend the family, attributing its disintegration to female selfishness and the power of the women’s movement.’" I was not thinking of Elshtain’s essay in The Nation nor of her many books but of a piece she published in the Fall 1982 Dissent titled "Feminism. Family and Community," which begins with a rhapsody on the traditional values of her grandma and goes on to say that "the right has been able to portray itself as the defender of family life in part because of the early and dramatic hostility of many. though not all, feminists and radicals to all traditional social forms."

           The issues of community Elshtain raises in that article are real and important, but I am not prepared to take the traditional family as the basis for my vision of social transformation. Some of this probably goes back to childhood experience; my own grandma, a terrified, poverty-stricken immigrant, didn’t have the class of Elshtain’s, nor had my family any vestige of traditional community values to counterpose to the market ones current in the United States. The only real community I’ve ever been part of is the one I helped make, the women’s movement. So I’m not prepared to say with Elshtain that "right-wing defenses of the family can only be countered by a feminism that agrees that the family is a prerequisite for any form of social life," much less heap scorn on feminists who use the word "family" to describe "every ad hoc collection of persons who happens to be under one roof." Nor do I think the main contradiction we have to deal with is between "the unacceptable poles of narcissistic self-absorption, on the one hand, and single-minded, overweening commitment to 'the Cause' on the other," or that feminism has to "begin with the needs of children."

           I am terribly concerned with the needs of children, including those of my own, but I am concerned with my needs as well. One is for a "beloved community;" another is not to be buried in the family and child rearing but to have full scope in the world, to take my vision as far as my powers can carry it. This doesn’t mean I’m reading Jean Elshtain out of the women’s movement, as she seems to fear; that’s not my style. But I do think that, faced with the growth of a "family-centered" right wing, she conceded too much.

Meredlth Tax