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Roe v. Wade turns 32 this week. But is the Democratic Party leaving it in the lurch as it searches for new leadership?

By Sarah Phelan

Shortly before Christmas 2004, as Democrats were picking through the rubble of another disastrous election, news broke that former Indiana Rep. and abortion foe Tim Roemer was joining the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Not only that, he was reportedly doing so at the urging of pro-choice House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The news sent shock waves through the Democratic universe.

As bloggers were quick to note, were Roemer to succeed Terry McAuliffe as Democratic chair, the party known as the champion of women's reproductive rights would have not one but two antiabortion leaders at its helm, given that anti-choice Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada has just taken over as Senate Minority Leader, after pro-choice Democrat Tom Daschle lost his seat in the Senate.

Roemer was quoted in the Dec. 23 issue of the Los Angeles Times as saying that he would not try to change the minds of abortion rights supporters, but he also said he would try to encourage the party to eliminate its "moral blind spot" when it comes to late-term abortions.

"We should be talking more about adoption as an alternative, and working with our churches to sponsor some of those adoptions," Roemer said.

Roemer thinks that abortion opponents would be more comfortable if the party talked about the issue in a more open-minded manner.

"We should be able to campaign in 50 states, not just the blue states or 20 states," he said.

Meanwhile, Roemer's foremost competition is former Vermont governor and pro-choicer Howard Dean, who has also entered the race for DNC chair. In response to Roemer's comments, Dean told NBC's Tim Russert, "We can change our vocabulary, but I don't think we ought to change our principles."

Reached last week by Metro Santa Cruz, Nancy Pelosi's press secretary Jennifer Crider emphasized that Pelosi had not endorsed anyone.

"Nancy basically said Roemer would make a good chair. There are many good candidates in a very rich field, and Mr. Roemer is one of them."

Crider said Roemer has been an important voice for Homeland Security in his role on the 9/11 Commission, and that the Democratic Party has never been a single issue party.

"The fact is we have diversity, which you're not going to find in the Republican Party. You're never gonna see a pro-choice candidate running for RNC chair."

Compromise or Not?

Cridder's words came as something of a relief to Richelle Norayan, a Santa Cruz resident and officer of the California Democratic National Committee, who says that news of Roemer's bid left her asking herself over the holiday season how she could remain a Democrat were the party to shift its position on reproductive choice.

"If we are willing to compromise on what's been a core issue for the Democrats, are we also gonna say that we no longer support civil rights, which is also a bedrock of the Democratic Party?" says Norayan.

She had also anxiously phoned her senators when Reid, who also supports Roemer's bid, was chosen to replace Daschle.

"Apparently, Reid had given assurances that as Senate minority leader he'd defend a woman's right to choose. I was told that he swore up and down that he's willing to lead filibusters if Bush makes anti-choice nominations to the Supreme court," says Norayan. Still, she says she doesn't like the idea that the most visible spokesperson for the Democratic Party in the Senate is a man with an anti-choice record.

Norayan, who was 5 years old when Roe v. Wade passed, fears it's not a matter of whether the landmark ruling that gave women a constitutional right to an abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy gets repealed, but when. Her pessimism stems from knowing that she's one of a growing number of women who don't remember when abortion was not legal.

"For many of them, choice is not a drastic issue. They tend to say, OK, I'm pro-choice, whatever. Choice doesn't dominate their concerns," she says.

And then there's the fact that Bush may well get to appoint more than one antiabortion justice to the Supreme Court in his second term in the White House, thereby tipping the balance in favor of a Roe v. Wade reversal for years to come.

If it is in fact reversed, predicts Norayan, "Many red states will become anti-choice and we'll have to set up an underground railroad to ensure women would be able to get safe and legal abortions elsewhere."

The issue, she says, may not seem as pressing to more affluent women who can seek abortions outside of their own state. But there will also be many who can't.

"If you're in the middle of a bank of red states, and you're poor and desperate, you'll seek it out someone who'll do it illegally," she says. "It's gonna be horrid, so I hope what Pelosi's press secretary says is true, and not just something to mollify the opposition."

Already Gone?

While Norayan worries that Roe v. Wade will soon be repealed, Betsy McCarty--who joined Santa Cruz County Health Services 32 years ago, the same year the Supreme Court legalized abortion, and who has just retired as the county's chief of public health--believes it's already as good as gone in many parts of the country.

"There are states that have already essentially rolled Roe v. Wade back by not providing services, and in which providers are intimidated in the few clinics that remain," says McCarty.

She cites the state of Mississippi, which, along with North Dakota, requires the consent of both parents for minors who seek abortions, and which also requires, as does Texas, that women be told that abortions may increase risk of breast cancer. The latter assertion directly contradicts the findings of the National Cancer Institute.

"In Mississippi, anti-choicers brag they don't need the Supreme court to outlaw abortion, since all their priorities have already been enacted," McCarty says. "Technically, women in America have reproductive freedom, but if you don't have providers who can provide these services without restrictions, how can you access it?"

McCarty says Bush got " a free ride on abortion" during the presidential debates, in which he framed the issue as if it were all about the Partial Birth Abortion Act.

McCarty points out that "partial birth" isn't even a medical term, and that in reality late abortions are relatively rare, with the vast majority of them performed around 12 weeks. According to the Center for Disease Control, 88 percent of all legal abortions are performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and 59 percent of those take place within the first eight weeks. Only 1.4 percent occur after 20 weeks.

"Talking about a fully formed fetus is totally different from talking about an eight-week accumulation of cells, which is the stage at which the majority of abortions occur and where the real need is," says McCarty.

She recalls that in her 32 years with the county's Health Department, she has only seen a few late abortions, all in extreme situations.

"It wasn't about some girl wanting to go to her prom in a slim dress," she says. "It was a woman seriously ill with heart failure. Another was a woman who was trying to mutilate herself, who thought she had demons inside. Others involved fetuses that were severely deformed."

Nor is McCarty buying the argument of some Democrats that the party needs to be more inclusionary to win future elections. "It seems to me that pro-choice is the middle ground," she says. "Being pro-choice is not saying that anybody must or should have an abortion."

She doesn't think, though, that moderate Republicans--many of whom are pro-choice--are likely to be taking a stand for abortion rights, either.

"You'd think that the most conservative political philosophers would be horrified by the idea of government interfering with reproductive rights," she says, "but I think they'll look the other way, and think it's for the greater good to give these rights away, in exchange for heavier defense and lower taxes. It's naive to think they won't overturn Roe v. Wade."

Family Planning: The Bigger Picture

Family planning is currently guaranteed in California for low-income women, without restrictions on age, parental consent or legal status. But Cynthia Mathews, Santa Cruz City Council member and associate vice president for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, predicts a relentless national campaign to restrict not just abortion rights, but also the broader array of reproductive choices, including access to birth control, international family planning and HIV aid.

"When people talk about reproductive rights, they tend to focus on the lightning rod of abortion, but a much broader range of choices are at risk," says Mathews.

She points out that not a single federal dollar has been spent on abortions since 1977, thanks to the a statute known as the Hyde Amendment. And while abortion is funded at a state level in California and New York, from a national viewpoint those states are an anomaly; in most of the country, there are very few family planning services available, and none for low-income women and teens who seek to choose an abortion.

Mathews says the antiabortion crusade has "much wider ripples" that not only affect family planning and emergency contraception, but also our foreign policy--for instance, the way the Bush administration has attached abortion and contraception gags to U.S. work on AIDS in Africa.

"As a result we have the most incomprehensible priorities in terms of dealing with a pandemic. That our AIDS assistance should be focused on abstinence and not be linked to any organization that provides or makes mention in any way of abortion has meant withholding resources from the most obvious organizations involved with the AIDS crisis in Africa," she says.

"Bush's policies have affected [everyone from] teenage and low-income women in Montana to women dying of AIDS in Africa, who are leaving orphaned children by the millions."

Here at home, Mathews sees immediate challenges for reproductive-rights supporters of all political stripes. The Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, for instance, mandates that every woman having an abortion at 20 weeks or more be told beforehand that there is "substantial evidence that the process of being killed in an abortion will cause the unborn child pain," and requires that the woman be offered an anesthetic specifically for the "pain-capable unborn child"--even though there is no scientific consensus on fetal pain and even though administration of separate anesthesia could pose a physical risk to women. Meanwhile, abortion foes continue to circulate claims of a link between abortion and breast cancer. "Zealots on this issue are unrestrained by science," she says.

Speak Out

In the face of such challenges, Norayan believes that Democrats' real power lies in convincing their party's leaders not to back down on the issue.

"We could send 50,000 letters to the White House about the Supreme Court appointments and it would do no good," she says.

"Instead, we need to ask elected Democrats to pass a resolution at the national level, assuring that if Bush nominates people to the Supreme Court who refuse to say where they stand on Roe v. Wade, then the Democrats will perform a filibuster."

Just three decades after the passage of the landmark ruling, there are of course still many women who do remember a time without its protections.

"When you think how common abortion is for women everywhere, it's clear that Roe v. Wade did not invent abortion," says Mathews. "It made it safe and legal, which is why some of our strongest support comes from people with gray hair. They remember what it was like before."


In observance of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Betsy McCarty speaks Saturday, Jan. 22, at 10am at the annual Santa Cruz County pro-choice brunch, United Methodist Church, 250 California St., Santa Cruz. Sliding scale donation: $10-$25, students free; 831.425.1551, ext. 29.

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From the January 19-26, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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