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Reproducing Patriarchy: Reproductive Rights Under Siege
by Pam Chamberlain and Jean Hardisty
The Public Eye Magazine - Vo. 14, No. 1

Since its earliest activism, the goal of the anti-abortion movement has been to ban abortion completely. Each of its sectors has pursued that goal with different strategies. The Roman Catholic Church, the original force behind the anti-abortion movement, has been joined by several other sectors, including conservative evangelical Christians and the more violence-prone activists of the far right. Independent organizations such as Operation Rescue have drawn from each of the sectors. As the struggle over abortion has persisted through several decades and the anti-abortion movement has been unable to achieve its goal of eliminating legal abortion altogether, the more militant and zealous sectors of the movement have gained power. As a result, violence against abortion providers and clinics has become more acceptable and common within the movement. Lawsuits and other forms of harassment have also been gaining in popularity. At the same time other sectors of the movement that work in the legislative arena, at the state level and in Washington, pursue incremental strategies to chip away at women's access to abortion, such as parental consent and waiting periods. Still others have worked at the grassroots level, providing support for the work of both angry demonstrators and suited legislators. When combined with financial barriers, such as the denial of coverage of abortion for Medicaid recipients, and the scarcity of abortion services in rural areas, the anti-abortion movement can claim a number of victories.

Many low income women, including many women of color, increasingly do not have access to a number of the forms of reproductive rights available to more affluent women - insurance or funds to pay for abortions, adequate reproductive health care, sexuality education, safer methods of contraception, or access to high tech fertility procedures. In some cases, they have lost control of their reproduction altogether, as in the case of forced sterilization or sterilization without consent. Low-income women of all races have a right to bear and raise children without legal sanctions that make it impossible or dangerous: in other words, they have a right to reproductive freedom. When the pro-choice movement defends abortion rights alone, as if they represented all reproductive rights, they are using the lens of middle-class women, and they are risking the loss of more than just legal abortion.

Opponents of abortion use the tactics of the larger right: claim moral superiority to your opponent; misrepresent the truth behind your own claims; and, while stereotyping and demonizing your opponents, use legislation and public funds to usurp the democratic process. The right will continue its campaign to limit and control women's reproductive practices. The key to its future success may well rest with the make-up of the Supreme Court, as its current members retire and are replaced by new Justices. Another factor is the vitality of the pro-choice movement, as it loses its grassroots character and becomes increasingly a movement of large and well-funded organizations. It is important that pro-choice organizations stay in close touch with grassroots constituencies, especially younger women, whom it will need to mobilize if the law continues to weaken the wall of privacy between government and women's reproductive practices.

Pro-choice activists are often absorbed with one area of the struggle to maintain and advance reproductive rights. But the right has mounted a broad attack on reproductive rights that reaches across many areas. As a result, the pro-choice movement is spread thin, working on many fronts, from defending access to abortion to challenging the latest unconstitutional legislation. Under these circumstances it is difficult to remember the larger picture in which specific work occurs. It can be helpful to step back and see each piece of the struggle as part of a whole.

The right's larger reactionary agenda prioritizes the rollback of the gains of the women's movement of the 1970s. Its leadership targets a wide range of women's rights. While abortion is a central target, it does not stand alone as the sole focus of the right's wrath. When we understand the nature of the right's ideas, strategies and tactics, we can see how the right has targeted nothing less than women's autonomy. The traditional, "family values" analysis of the proper role of women does not honor women's reproductive rights. We must defend the right of women to self-determination in the control of their reproductive lives across the board. Every specific area of pro-choice activity in the service of this larger goal is crucial to the success of the pro-choice movement in resisting the right's attack.

Pam Chamberlain is a consultant to Political Research Associates (PRA) working on PRA's Reproductive Rights Activist Kit. Jean Hardisty is Executive Director of Political Research Associates. The authors would like to thank Elly Bulkin for her excellent editorial pen.

EDITORS' NOTE: This article has 44 endnotes. For a printed version call Political Research Associates at (617) 661-9313.

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