Ballot Box

Maneuvering Womb

Abortion rights groups launch a march on Washington.

On Tuesday, the Feminist Majority, Planned Parenthood, the National Organization for Women, and NARAL Pro-Choice America announced an abortion rights march on Washington. I’ve been interested in this issue for a long time (my book on it is coming out soon) because its political fate is so thoroughly driven by the way each side frames the debate. Tuesday’s press conference highlighted some of the latest battles and tactics.

1. The Rehnquist problem. The person most likely to step down from the Supreme Court this summer is Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In terms of policy, that’s bad news for pro-lifers, because Rehnquist is part of the court minority that opposes Roe v. Wade. But in terms of politics, it’s bad news for pro-choicers, because it’s hard to motivate their troops for the ensuing confirmation fight when there’s no threat to the court’s pro-Roe majority.

At the press conference, NOW President Kim Gandy showed how pro-choice groups intend to get around this problem. “If George W. Bush has an opportunity to put even one 40-something justice on that court,” said Gandy, “Roe will be lost to us for not the next four years or eight years or 12 years, but literally generations—for the next 35 or 40 years that that justice sits on the bench.”

Translation: If a new anti-Roe justice replaces Rehnquist, it won’t change the court’s balance immediately, but it will keep Rehnquist’s seat in anti-Roe hands for several more decades, which in turn will put pressure on Roe supporters not to lose any other seats. Think of it as a tennis match. You can’t relax during your opponent’s service games just because you’re expected to lose them. Every game your opponent holds serve puts pressure on you to win your service games or lose the set. You have to break serve, on the chance that your opponent will break yours.

2. The doctor is in. The introductory speaker was Jennifer Heitel, an activist with the Feminist Majority and Catholics for a Free Choice. She declared, “It is proven that the majority of youth in America are pro-choice. According to a Peter Harris Research Poll conducted for Ms. magazine in January of 2003, 70 percent of young women and men favor a woman’s right to an abortion under the advice of her doctor.” Ms. says 70 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans shared that position.

Why are these numbers so high? Because the question mentions a doctor’s supervision. This is a well-known way to prod ambivalent respondents to take the pro-choice position. Respondents who won’t trust the woman will often trust the doctor. That doesn’t mean they see eye-to-eye with the Feminist Majority. They just think doctors are more appropriate regulators than bureaucrats are. Maybe that means letting women decide. Or maybe it means letting panels of doctors decide which abortions should be allowed, as many states did before Roe.

3. Strike up the ban. “The president of the United States is poised to make history by signing into law for the first time a federal criminal ban on abortion,” NARAL President Kate Michelman told reporters at the press conference. When asked during the Q and A to name the chief threats to abortion rights, Michelman again mentioned Bush becoming “the first president to sign a criminal ban on abortion into law at the federal level.”

What ban is Michelman talking about? The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which the House passed last week (the Senate had already passed it) and Bush has pledged to sign. Republicans don’t want you to think of this bill as a general abortion ban, because if they ban abortion, they’ll scare libertarian swing voters and get punished at the polls, as many of them were the last time they messed with Roe. So they claim that “partial births” aren’t really abortions (because the fetus is partially outside the woman) and aren’t covered by Roe, which will supposedly remain intact. Their strategy is akin to that of a jewelry shoplifter: to pluck one gem out of the display case without setting off the alarm.

Michelman wants to set off the alarm. That’s why she keeps hitting the word “ban.” She doesn’t care whether you know which procedure is at stake or even whether you know it’s just (for now) one procedure. The important thing is to make sure you know it’s a ban, because bans are the only things that seem to mobilize big outpourings of pro-choice money and votes. Parental consent laws, waiting periods, and restrictions on public funding of abortions haven’t done the trick. We’ll find out soon whether this law will.

Got a question or comment on this article or other abortion-related news? Write to