Facing a critical year for reproductive choice

My turn

Posted: Thursday, January 18, 2001

When dawn breaks Monday, Jan. 22, pro-choice and anti-choice groups around the nation will observe the 28th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in the United States. The court ruled that the right to privacy extended to a woman's decision whether to terminate her pregnancy.

Every year when this anniversary rolls around the rhetoric from both sides sounds like it did the year before. But from a pro-choice point of view, this year is different. At no time since the 1973 decision have the reproductive rights of women been so seriously threatened. At no time since 1973 has it become more important for pro-choice women and men to get involved.

Consider these circumstances:

George W. Bush is our new president and he opposes reproductive freedom for women. The Supreme Court is upholding Roe by a slim 5-4 margin and two or three appointments are possible during Bush's term.

President Bush has selected anti-choice extremists such as former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin to key positions in his Cabinet. Ashcroft, his nominee for attorney general, is so extreme he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. According to the Jefferson City News & Tribune, Ashcroft told the Missouri Citizens for Life annual convention that "he would not stop until an amendment outlawing abortion is added to the U.S. Constitution."

President Bush is already considering imposing the "global gag rule," which bars U.S. funds from going to international family planning groups that use their own funds to lobby for abortion rights.

Both houses of Congress are controlled by the Republican Party, which has made the denial of women's reproductive rights a central plank in its platform for almost two decades. Never before since the Roe v. Wade decision have anti-choice forces controlled both the executive and legislative branches of our federal government.

In Alaska, including Juneau, anti-choice extremists have taken lessons from counterparts across the nation and effectively intimidated doctors from providing abortions to women who want them. Access to this legally protected procedure in Alaska has seriously deteriorated, including in Juneau, where there has been no provider for more than 15 years.

Anti-abortion extremists have for years fought and won battles to restrict abortions. In state legislatures, including Alaska's, they've successfully chipped away at rights of women who are least able to protect themselves in the political arena, the poor and the young. Now these extremists see a door opening that would allow them to completely outlaw abortions for all women, and many among them believe all contraception is a sin and that this religious belief should become federal law.

What is most scary for pro-choice advocates is that many women don't remember what it was like when abortion was illegal. And many young women, who were born in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, take reproductive rights for granted. By the time they wake up and pay attention, reproductive rights for all women may be gone.

The true myth of the anti-abortion forces is that if they outlaw abortions they will stop abortions. It is estimated that before 1973, 1.2 million women a year resorted to illegal abortions and that botched illegal abortions caused as many as 5,000 deaths a year. Currently, of the 46 million abortions that occur worldwide every year, an estimated 20 million take place where abortion is considered illegal.

Abortions may be outlawed, but they won't be stopped. The only thing that will be accomplished is to make them medically unsafe and risky. Desperate women will be considered criminals and we will become a society where forced childrearing is legally endorsed.

For those of us who believe that women should have the right to make such private decision in consultation with their doctors, 2001 is indeed a somber year. We will continue to fight very hard in the political and legal arenas. But we need the apathetic among us to face this very real threat and to join us in the difficult days ahead.

We need pro-choice Americans to stand up and be heard. We must let our voices be heard in the halls of Congress and the halls of the Alaska Legislature. Silence, and continuing to take reproductive freedom for granted, is no longer acceptable.

Shannon O'Fallon is president of the Juneau Pro-Choice Coalition.

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