A Crucial Coalition

Women, progressives must march for rights

Eleanor Smeal

If there is anything that shows the power of progressive coalitions, it is the March for Women’s Lives. The progressive feminist movement will converge April 25 on Washington, D.C., for what will be a historic march for women’s reproductive rights and health. The March for Women’s Lives is co-sponsored by more than 1,200 groups, including women’s, civil rights, environmental, lesbian and gay rights, women of color, disability, labor, religious, civil liberties, peace organizations and more. This march represents a huge coalition of pro-women’s rights progressive forces coming together to say, We won’t go back.”

The threat of returning to the days of illegal, unsafe, back-alley abortions is very real. The recently released private papers of the late Justice Harry Blackmun reveal that in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic vote in Casey v. Planned Parenthood was 5 – 4 to reverse Roe v. Wade and the right to privacy. Only because of Blackmun’s last-minute pressure and that of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter did Justice Anthony Kennedy switch his vote and rescue a heavily burdened Roe. Kennedy, who was counsel for the Archdiocese of Sacramento before being appointed to the Court, initially voted with Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas and White.

The Supreme Court’s razor thin 5 – 4 split is not only on Roe v. Wade. Affirmative action, environmental questions, and even the presidency itself in Bush v. Gore were decided by the same margin.

If Roe is reversed, our fundamental right to privacy — upon which the Court’s decision was based — is in jeopardy. And two other landmark cases—Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird that made birth control pills accessible through the right to privacy — also would be at stake.

The most recent Court decision on abortion, Stenberg v. Carhart, was decided in June 2000 by a 5 – 4 majority in favor of abortion rights. That means the appointment of even one more anti-choice justice likely would result in further limiting or even overturning Roe v. Wade. States across the nation continue to pass harsh laws — more than 400 since 1995 — imposing restrictions on women’s access to safe and legal abortions and contraception. These laws especially affect young women and poor women.

While far too many politicians and justices attempt to eliminate a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion and family planning, public support for legal abortion has remained steady and high over the years. A 2003 Ms. magazine poll conducted by the Peter Harris Research Group found that 73 percent of women and men favor a woman’s right to an abortion with the advice of her doctor. This is almost exactly the same level Harris found in 1995.

Yet Americans are unaware — and indeed do not believe —that this right can be lost. These fundamental rights are threatened not only by the Supreme Court but in the federal circuit courts of appeals and district courts, as well.

Just as the progressive movement has joined together for the March, right now a huge progressive coalition of civil rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, labor, environmental, disability, and lesbian and gay groups are trying to stop the stacking of the federal judiciary, especially the federal courts of appeals. Of the 13 federal circuit courts of appeals, 10 already are controlled by conservative judges, and given vacancies and pending nominees, by the end of the year Republicans could gain the majority on all but one.

Senate Democrats, under immense pressure from progressive forces, have managed to use filibusters to block six of the most reactionary nominees to the federal judiciary — but 30 appeals court nominees and 142 district court nominees have been confirmed. Furthermore, President Bush recently bypassed the Senate and made recess appointments of two of the most anti-women’s, civil, and reproductive rights nominees: Charles W. Pickering Sr. and William H. Pryor Jr.

Yes, it is time — long overdue — to sound the alarm that we are on the verge of losing women’s fundamental rights. But more is at stake.

As go women, so go rights

In many ways, women and women’s rights are the canaries in the mine. What happens to women’s rights signals what’s happening to a nation — a society itself. Look at Afghanistan. The atrocious restrictions, gender apartheid, enjoined by the Taliban and initially all but ignored by the rest of the world with the exception of feminist organizations, signaled something was horribly wrong there and around the globe. 

If it wasn’t for the Feminist Majority and the women’s movement, the United States and the United Nations would have recognized the Taliban in 1998 as the official government of Afghanistan and gone on with business as usual. Instead, because of pressure from the women’s movement, President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Kofi Annan came out in March 1998 against recognition of the Taliban regime — in front of a large group of leaders from women’s organizations. 

The war on women’s rights domestically and globally continues. The global gag rule — the first measure President Bush promulgated after being sworn in on January 21, 2001 — prohibits U.S. funding in developing countries for family planning agencies that use their own money to provide women with information about abortion or even to advocate for legalization of abortion.

This is at a time when the World Health Organization estimates that more than 80,000 women die in developing nations each year from complications of illegal or unsafe abortions, and hundreds of thousands others are maimed and injured. Women seeking treatment for complications of unsafe abortions overwhelm healthcare systems in these poor countries, consuming as much as half of hospital budgets. Experts also believe the number of women dying is twice the official counts. With many women afraid or unable to seek medical treatment, their tragic deaths go uncounted.

What many people in this country don’t know is that U.S. international family planning and abortion policies are contributing to the deaths of these women and girls. That’s why, when we march, we will call attention to these failed U.S. policies.

Moreover, U.S. family planning aid both domestically and internationally is increasingly going to abstinence-only programs — some one-half of the aid! That’s why, when we march, we will be calling attention to this shortsighted, irresponsible diversion of funds from more effective programs.

Can you imagine abstinence-only programs supported by U.S. policy in sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS is of pandemic proportions? Where the average onset of HIV/AIDS is 25 years of age, where the average marriage age for women is in the teen years and where the face of HIV/AIDS (or its typical victim) now is a young woman?

Yes, current U.S. family planning policy is shortsighted and shamefully irresponsible. That’s why we are marching. If we don’t call public attention to these shameful policies costing countless women their lives, who will?

We’re determined to save Roe v. Wade, to save family planning, to reverse the global gag rule. And we are not alone. I am proud of the diverse coalition signing on as cosponsors for the March for Women’s Lives. The progressive movement is standing together to protect women’s reproductive rights in the United States and abroad. As the canaries in the mine, not to mention more than half the population, we must make women’s issues more visible in this critical year. Women simply cannot be left out of the public debate.

In my 30-plus years of organizing nationally, I have been a part of the leadership of many important human rights, civil rights and women’s rights marches. I have seen the massive positive impact marches can have in galvanizing public opinion. Never has a march for women’s rights been more important than today. We cannot — must not — continue to drift backward. We must organize to make this the largest march in women’s rights history. The times call for no less.

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Eleanor Smeal is president and co-founder of the Feminist Majority and publisher of Ms. magazine. She previously served as president of the National Organization for Women.
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