With both chambers of Congress now controlled by Republicans, abortion rights advocates in Washington are girding for the sort of political fight unseen for more than a decade. MotherJones.com spoke with Gloria Totten, the executive director of Progressive Majority and the former political director for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, about what that fight is likely to bring, and how it’s likely to be fought.
First, how would you characterize the Bush administration’s record on women’s issues?
When it comes to human rights and civil rights, on the global front they’ve acted poorly. On the domestic front — I think you can look at it through the courts, through legislation, and through budget actions — they’ve taken funds, and they’ve been very explicit that they are going to appoint only right wing, strictly constructionist and certainly anti-choice justices at the federal level. And that foretells what will happen when we get a Supreme Court nomination. Sen. Mitch McConnell … has introduced language that effectively gave embryos the same rights as people. Dennis Shedd, who was another nominee, has a history of opposing any anti-discrimination measures — whether they’re sexually-based or racially-based. This disproportionately affects women. So when it comes to a woman’s right to choose, protecting women against sexually based discrimination, and the overall deregulated nature of the administration and the people they’re appointing to the bench, these nominations will have an impact on all of our civil rights, women’s access to government contracts, and on anti-discrimination measures.
Do you believe that the administration is gearing up to target women’s rights in particular?
Certainly when it comes to the dismantling of women’s rights, which has started to and will continue to occur, that’s one of the area’s where there is the largest inconsistency between the administration’s language and its actions. They make a very concerted effort to reach out to women, to include women in positions of power, in order to get the women’s vote in elections. But, as strong as a women’s advocate as I consider myself to be, I think it’s hard to look at all of the things they’ve done and to say they’re singling us out. It’s happening across the board on so many issues. It’s hard to separate what’s just a unilateral approach to global politics — which we’re seeing in lots of areas, not just those that affect women — and what’s a lack of understanding about the impact of what’s happening in the world right now on the United States. When it comes to the courts, there’s such an interest in this administration in deregulation and states’ rights that it can be hard to point to what’s an attempt to dismantle women’s access to fundamental rights and freedoms, and what’s just more of a business approach to government.
We now have a Republican Congress, giving the administration a far freer hand. So what are the weak spots in the Bush team’s strategy? What are the best avenues of resistance and opposition?
On the domestic front, the numbers are so bad in the House and the Senate now in terms of votes that the administration will do what they want. I think they’ll continue to chip away at the edges of the actual right to abortion in the country. But it depends on what they do with Abstinence Only and Charitable Choice, and all those other programs.
The majority of Americans support family planning and abortion overwhelmingly. It’s part of our culture now, which is why they’ve never tried to take down Roe versus Wade. Given that they have the votes they need to pass whatever legislation they want to, it will be a challenge for this administration to hold back the very conservative wings of their party. There’s always a balance between the ideology and the political nature of the administration. But they could go too far on one end. Certainly, the people they’re putting forth in the courts are incredibly conservative. And if they’re able now, under the new Congress, to move these appointments through at the federal level, and then again at the Supreme Court level when an opening becomes available there, it could be their appointees who end up going too far.
Historically we’ve seen that there is a point at which public opinion just becomes peaked. People wake up and realize something is happening. We certainly saw that in 1989, when the Webster versus Reproductive Health Services case was passed in Missouri. Then, leading into 1992 with Pennsylvania v. Casey, there was an incredible surge in everyday people — non-activists — getting involved in the issues of abortion and reproductive freedom, because they felt genuinely that their rights were going to be taken away. The current administration is at risk of touching that nerve in the American people.
So, national awareness may be raised by seeing an extreme anti-abortion agenda pursued in Congress?
Yes, I think so. But it depends on how far conservatives are willing to go. They’ve already said that one of the most important things to them is going to be getting their people appointed to the courts. They’re … bringing Judge Pickering back for re-nomination under the new Congress. That’s a pretty bold step. That’s one priority for them. If we go through a process of federal hearings, and then ultimately the Supreme Court fight where they’re parading through these ultra-conservative judges, I think that they do stand to risk setting people off. Abortion and family planning are so innately private to people that even on a political front they have to hit what I call the “me factor.” When people feel like “this could happen to me,” or “this could affect my right,” then people came out in droves, even people who had never thought about this issue in a political sense before. And this is why it comes up in an electoral context. But it will happen through the courts. I don’t thing anyone will be so bold as to introduce legislation in the Congress.
What forms do you think that agenda will take? Is the administration likely to support a so-called stealth campaign, or can we expect a direct assault on established rights?
They’ve known they can’t go directly at Roe through Congress or through the state legislatures without setting off people, so that’s why the courts become so important to them. And that’s why they’re willing to push bills like those against so-called “partial-birth abortions,” which sound very innocuous and don’t raise any flags for people, but are really designed to strike at the heart of Roe versus Wade, and have been struck down as unconstitutional, but will be raised again.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
You raised the budget piece, which is where much of the reproductive rights-related legislation comes, but when it comes to women’s rights issues this time around, we also have to look at and pay attention to health care, prescription drugs and what they do, Medicaid, children’s health insurance. And the big one this time around will be the welfare reauthorization bill, which will likely be just suspended, but it has a tremendous impact on women around the country. And then just generally … women are disproportionately affected by the high rate of unemployment, as are minorities, and those are important women’s issues as well that we will be trying to raise in the next Congress. Women are more likely to be part-time employees, which are the first to be laid-off. My experience is that it’s important to talk about broad issues, which disproportionately affect women, in women-specific ways, rather than in broad, esoteric, budget-number kinds of ways, which is often the way debates happen.