Rolling back women’s rights

Amanda Marcotte has a must-read roundup of the growing assault on women’s rights around the country. There’s more than enough evidence here to make for a disturbing trend. In Ohio, anti-gay marriage laws have been interpreted to leave unmarried women vulnerable to domestic violence. The Education Department is easing up on sex discrimination in athletics. Pharmacists are flatly refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. And so on.

Amanda’s links on abortion are particularly noteworthy. There’s a lot of hand-wringing in certain Democratic circles right now about how best to compromise on abortion rhetoric so as to appeal to the largest number of voters on the issue. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that, and the proposed solutions—like using sex education and better birth control to reduce the total number of abortions—are perfectly laudable. At the same time, it’s worth paying attention to the concerted attack on abortion rights over the past decade, as Jodi Enda’s cover story in this month’s American Prospect describes:

As a result of restrictive laws, violence, and the stigma that has become attached to abortion, fewer doctors and other health-care professionals are providing them. The number of abortion providers declined from a high of 2,908 in 1982 to 1,819 in 2000, a 37-percent drop, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Almost no nonmetropolitan area had an abortion provider in 2000, the institute reported, which might explain why the abortion rate among women in small towns and rural areas is half that of women in metropolitan areas.

State restrictions almost certainly have caused some women, perhaps thousands a year, to forgo abortions. Research suggests that Wisconsin’s two-day waiting period might have contributed to a 21-percent decline in abortions there. Shawn Towey, spokeswoman for the National Network of Abortion Funds, a group comprising 102 organizations that provides money and support for low-income women seeking abortions, estimates that 60,000 women a year find the restrictions so onerous that they carry their babies to term. The Guttmacher Institute stated in a 2001 report that between 18 percent and 35 percent of Medicaid-eligible women who want to have abortions continue their pregnancies if public funding isn’t available.

Indeed, it doesn’t seem to get enough attention these days, but in a number of crucial respects the anti-choice movement in this country has been winning of late; many women—especially many low-income women—don’t have a choice on abortion. Bill Clinton’s oft-cited middle ground on abortion—”safe, legal, and rare”—seems like a good compromise, but too often the emphasis seems to be on the “rare” aspect. It’s important, though, not to lose sight of the “safe” and “legal” parts, or the part about making reproductive choice available to all women, regardless of income or status.


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