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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

Reproductive Rights Trampled Under Bush's Command

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director, and Jessica Greenfield, Communications Intern

George W. Bush appears satisfied after signing the 'Partial Birth' abortion ban while surrounded by a group of Congress members that included only men.
George W. Bush appears satisfied after signing the "Partial Birth" abortion ban while surrounded by a group of Congress members that included only men.  Photo reprinted with permission from Reuters
As the 2004 presidential race heats up, both Democrats and Republicans will face questions about the extent of their support for women's reproductive freedom. On Nov. 5, 2003, George W. Bush made his position clear when he signed the deceptively-named Partial-Birth Abortion Ban into law, boldly asserting his commitment to prohibit safe and legal abortion in the United States.

Three Long Years Under Bush's Tyranny

Since entering office in January 2001, Bush has demonstrated fealty to his anti-choice supporters. On his first full day in the Oval Office, he reinstated the infamous Global Gag Rule, cutting off U.S. funding to international family planning organizations that even utter the word "abortion." In the 2002 budget, Bush proposed eliminating required contraceptive coverage for female federal employees and dependents.

Bush declared Jan. 22, 2002, the 29th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, "National Sanctity of Human Life Day." His appointee as Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Tommy Thompson, is using the plight of low-income pregnant women who need pre-natal health care to enact regulations that designate fetuses as "children." And a new FDA review of mifepristone (RU-486), the pill used in medical abortions, seems likely, thanks to Bush's cronies in Congress and on the relevant panels.

But Bush's most ominous step yet is turning the "Partial Birth Abortion" bill into law.

"The truth is that the term partial-birth abortion doesn't exist in the medical world—it's a fabrication of the anti-choice machine," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "The law doesn't even contain an exception to preserve a woman's health and future fertility, and it will have a chilling effect on the ability of physicians to offer women the best, most appropriate medical care at all times."

Men Among Men

The now infamous photograph of Bush signing the ban, surrounded by applauding white men and not a single woman, perfectly illustrates the situation in which women find themselves in this country, where men in power seek to control women's bodies and limit their rights.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., contended that "a group of men celebrating depriving women of a medical procedure that could save their health and their lives," is nothing more than "a slap in the face to women across America."

Shortly after the signing, three federal judges issued temporary injunctions to prevent the law from taking effect. The district court judges—in New York, Nebraska and California—all found the ban unconstitutional because of its failure to provide an exception to preserve the woman's health.

Together, these three injunctions ensure that the majority of doctors who perform abortions in the U.S. will be safe from prosecution until the courts have the opportunity to hear both sides' full arguments. In his remarks at the signing Bush promised that "the executive branch will vigorously defend this law against any who would try to overturn it in the courts."

The Right-Wing Spin Machine Frames the Debate

In order to win Democratic votes and get the bill passed in both houses of Congress, right-wing supporters of the ban distorted the facts, most notably through two claims. The first claim was that the ban only targeted one specific procedure—the one opponents called "partial-birth," which is technically known as dilation and extraction or D&X. This way, legislators who normally support women's reproductive rights could vote for the ban and still convince themselves that they support the constitutional right to abortion.

The second claim is hinged on the first, asserting that this particular procedure is never necessary to preserve a woman's health, and that other procedures would be perfectly acceptable substitutes.

Both claims are purposely misleading. First, the description of the procedure as it appears in the bill is sufficiently vague, according to medical professionals, that it covers more than one procedure, likely including some of the safest procedures in the second trimester. The language of the ban is designed to provoke fear in physicians who might err on the side of caution and not perform any mid- or late-term abortions, even to preserve the woman's health, in order to avoid arrest.

Even if the first claim were true, and the ban only applied to the D&X procedure, the second claim is not only untrue but dangerous. Only an experienced doctor, on a case by case basis, can decide what method will be best to preserve the health and future fertility of the woman. A number of medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have criticized Congress for dictating to physicians and women what procedures they can and cannot use, under what are often traumatic circumstances. In the uncommon cases where the D&X procedure is administered, there are almost always debilitating or life-threatening pregnancy complications that place the woman's life, health or reproductive future in jeopardy.

These circumstances might include when cancer, diabetes, heart disease or another chronic or fatal condition is diagnosed in the woman, or when a fetus develops severe abnormalities, conditions which rarely surface before the second or third trimester of pregnancy.

"To limit a woman's medical options during such a harrowing time is cruel beyond imagination," said Gandy.

Can We Survive Four More Years of the Bush Agenda?

When Bush signed the "partial-birth abortion" ban, it became the first restriction of an abortion procedure since abortion became legal in 1973, but it will not be the last if he remains in office.

In its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is a private matter between a woman and her doctor, protected under the right to privacy guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Bush has now opened the door to governmental interference, and he will continue to infringe upon women's reproductive freedom as far as we will let him.

During the debate over the ban, Bush made this disingenuous statement: "I don't think the culture has changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress would totally ban abortions."

Some media outlets and pundits hailed this quote as proof that Bush does not want to outlaw all abortions, but feminists know better. Looking back at other Bush statements, it's clear he hopes our culture will be ready soon, and that he will have the opportunity to preside over the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

During his 2000 campaign, Bush told NBC's Tim Russert that "the unborn ought to be protected in law and welcomed to life," and that he would support a constitutional amendment banning abortions. In 1994, Bush told the Dallas Morning News, "I will do everything in my power to restrict abortions." And he may soon have that power.

Bush's anti-abortion friends know the score—the Concerned Women for America have stated that "it's possible" that all abortions could be banned during a second Bush term. Even Democratic Senator Tom Harkin has issued a warning: "Unless [women] start expressing themselves vocally and at the polls, they are going to lose this right."

Right now, the Supreme Court narrowly supports a woman's right to make reproductive decisions, albeit with many restrictions. But that could change in the next few years, with several justices on the verge of retirement.

"If Bush is elected—or selected—president in 2004, the reproductive rights of women will be in greater danger than they already are," said Gandy. "Some women's and girls' entire reproductive futures may be affected by the upcoming elections. NOW will not let that happen."

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