Tuesday April 18, 2006
The world in their sights
Flushed with success, the US anti-abortion movement is radically expanding its goals
For many years, reproductive-rights activists in the US have predicted a series of events that would lead to the toppling of abortion rights. Currently, and with breathtaking speed, we have passed many of those benchmarks. The anti-abortion movement has become a powerful bully on our national political stage. Now, it plans to flex its muscle internationally. The UK may be its next stop. In fact, the US movement has already begun exporting its menacing brand of activism. And they're not even leaving home to do it.
In the US, those concerned that abortion should remain safe and legal - and two-thirds of Americans claim to be pro-choice - were most recently delivered a body blow by South Dakota, which last month brazenly outlawed all abortions including those involving rape and incest, or to protect a woman's health. That state law is heading into the courts, which will decide if the federal right to abortion established in the case of Roe v Wade should remain the law of the land.
Many fear that recent appointments by the Bush administration may tilt the supreme court against abortion. But, for those of us who study the reproductive-rights landscape, the overturning of Roe would in many ways just formalise the situation. It seems, in fact, that anti-abortionists, empowered by this president, have moved on to the next item on their agenda: banning contraception.
Under Bush, the anti-abortion movement has proposed nearly 2,700 bills to obstruct a women's right to abortion (more than 200 have been enacted, including 58 last year). The restrictions include forcing physicians to read "pro-life" propaganda to patients complete with medically inaccurate information, and preventing doctors from providing abortions to minors - even in the case of a health emergency - without first obtaining the consent of a parent.
None of these restrictions have affected the US abortion rate. But, ironically, they have forced women to have abortions later in pregnancy - revealing the real cause of many of those so-called "partial-birth abortions" that anti-abortionists love to rail against.
Perhaps the most daunting problem for most American women is that so many doctors no longer have the courage to provide abortions - the result is that 87% of counties in the US have no abortion provider.
In recent years, the anti-abortion movement has won some startling victories, and not only concerning abortion. Flushed with success, the movement has radically expanded its goals to campaign against contraception. It is tragic that they have risen up against the very methods proven to prevent abortion. They have defeated state and federal legislative efforts to mandate health insurers to cover the cost of contraception. They lead legal efforts to protect pharmacists who refuse to fill women's prescriptions for birth control. And they promote abstinence-only curriculums in American schools - essentially preaching that the only way to avoid pregnancy and disease is by not having sex. Shockingly, as part of these courses, anti-abortionists now teach our children that condoms don't work.
The anti-abortion movement, now nearing completion of many of its goals in the US, has set its sights on the rest of the world. Today, most of the international efforts against legal abortion and contraception are based in the US - and US groups are directing the same campaigns that have been so successful domestically in countries throughout the world.
For example, the US movement is using the UK Life League to carry out intimidation campaigns of British abortion providers. One tactic is to get members of US anti-abortion groups to send thousands of hostile emails to specific British clinics and doctors. Another US group, Human Life International, claims to be "the international pro-life movement"; it has offices in 51 countries. The Abstinence Clearinghouse, another US organisation, has campaigns under way in the most Aids-ravaged countries in Africa. Its mission? To discourage use of the condom.
It remains to be seen if the pro-choice majority in the US will rise up to stop the growing crusade against safe abortion and access to contraception. We await the mid-term elections in November for a sign. If not, the anti-abortion movement may well hit the jackpot, banning abortion and limiting access to contraception. One other thing is certain, to paraphrase President Bush: we need to fight them here, so you don't have to fight them there.
· Cristina Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex