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National NOW Times >> Spring 2003 >> Article

NOW Fights Back Against New Abortion Rights Threats

Women's Bodies, Lives on the Line

by Monica Martinez, Field Organizer

The Capital City NOW chapter held its annual candlelight vigil outside the Supreme Court on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Jan. 22. Hundreds rallied in the freezing cold.
The Capital City NOW chapter held its annual candlelight vigil outside the Supreme Court on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Jan. 22. Hundreds rallied in the freezing cold.Photo by Lisa Bennett

Thirty years after women won the legal right to abortion, attacks on this right are coming from an increasingly conservative government and judiciary.

"The Bush administration has gone too far, and it is time for us to fight back," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "If women ever are to achieve full equality in the United States and around the globe, we must have the right to determine whether and when to have children."

A Shocking Decision

On Feb. 26, the Supreme Court ruled (8-1) in NOW v. Scheidler that anti-abortion extremists had not engaged in extortion during their centrally orchestrated violent campaign to shut down abortion clinics nationwide.

"With their shocking decision in NOW v. Scheidler, eight Supreme Court justices placed a higher value on tangible property than on women's liberty," said Gandy. "This ruling has put a woman's right to seek medical services from a clinic, and the clinic's right to provide those services, under greater threat."

NOW filed the suit 17 years ago and has used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to protect women, doctors and clinic staff. NOW won the first ever nationwide injunction against anti-abortion clinic violence and, in fact, the violence did subside significantly. Protestors still demonstrated and shouted outside the clinics, but the physical harm and property damage ended.

NOW organized a press conference just hours after the ruling was released. Gandy stated that NOW would rededicate itself to the protection of women's right to abortion and to finding legal avenues to ensure that religious and political extremists do not resume their reign of terror at clinics.

Only days before the NOW v. Scheidler decision, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from abortion clinics and activists in Indiana who were challenging the state's restrictive abortion laws mandating an 18 hour waiting period and face to face counseling before the procedure. The hurdles created by the Indiana law—which effectively forces women to make two trips to the clinic—disproportionately affect poor and rural women. In refusing to consider the case, the Supreme Court also rejected an opportunity to review the constitutionality of similar restrictions that exist in many states.

The women behind <i>NOW v. Scheidler</i>, left to right: attorney Sara Love, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, NOW President Kim Gandy, lead attorney Fay Clayton, clinic plaintiff Susan Hill, and past NOW President Patricia Ireland..
The women behind NOW v. Scheidler, left to right: attorney Sara Love, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, NOW President Kim Gandy, lead attorney Fay Clayton, clinic plaintiff Susan Hill, and past NOW President Patricia Ireland.Photo by Lisa Bennett
Anniversary Energizes Activists

The 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, on Jan. 22, was celebrated in Washington, D.C., with the annual candlelight vigil in front of the Supreme Court. Braving the sub-freezing temperatures, several hundred activists turned out to commemorate the Supreme Court's crucial decision and to send the message to George W. Bush and the nation's lawmakers that we won't go back. Actions were held by many chapters across the country, with renewed vigor thanks to Bush's agenda.

An anniversary that should have been an opportunity to celebrate women's reproductive freedom was instead a sobering reminder of how perilously close we are to losing our right to safe and legal abortion.

"The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress are on a mission to deny women's reproductive rights by any and all means necessary," warns Gandy.

Thirty years after Roe, abortion foes have succeeded in passing a number of laws at the federal and state level that have made abortion less accessible to women, particularly young women and poor women. The onslaught will only intensify in the months and years to come, as the Republican controlled Congress and White House prepare to pass even more restrictive laws and appoint to the bench judges hostile to abortion.

Procedures Ban Likely to Pass

In March, the Senate passed the so-called "Partial Birth Abortion" ban. Because of its vague language, abortion rights activists believe the broadly drafted ban—which is supposed to stop only one rare late-term procedure—would make illegal other types of abortion procedures. Congress has twice passed a procedures ban since 1996, but President Clinton vetoed it both times. As we went to press, the House was on the verge of passing the ban, with Bush certain to sign it into law. (For more info, see the Legislative Update.)

In the meantime, the Bush administration is pushing through extremist judges with appalling records on abortion rights, such as 5th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Priscilla Owen, or judges who have remained silent on their stances on abortion, like stealth candidate Miguel Estrada, nominated to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. With the Senate (and the Senate Judiciary Committee) firmly in the hands of Republicans, only decisive action from pro-abortion rights Senators can stop Bush's campaign to pack the courts with anti abortion judges.

Despite the increasing threats to our abortion rights, NOW will not waver in its commitment to keeping abortion safe, legal and accessible to all women. In these challenging times, we must take heart in the rallying cry of activists at the 30th anniversary vigil in Washington, a cry echoed by millions of abortion rights supporters across the nation: "We won't go back!" Could it be time for another march on Washington?

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