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Abortion: Living for The Debate

Christopher D. Smith

Decades of political and social conflict over abortion have seen the issue transformed into the raison d’etre for many women’s rights organizations. As proof, take the recent invective over the the nomination of former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) for U.S. Attorney General, and the subsequent outrage over President Bush’s reinstitution of the so-called Mexico City policy.

The Ashcroft nomination inspired a major mobilization by the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the two most visible women’s rights groups. Their efforts to stop Ashcroft was the most vocal opposition to a presidential nomination since Bush the Elder nominated Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. In contrast to the Thomas-Hill fracas, the Ashcroft fight revolved around somewhat specious questions over Ashcroft’s ability to separate his strong pro-life views from his duties as head of the Justice Department.

Further complaints followed President Bush’s executive order to halt funding for organizations providing abortion counseling and services abroad. Surely, this is a tough stance, but it is reasonable given that many Americans feel it is inappropriate for the government to fund foreign abortions, especially when many foreign nations are culturally opposed to abortion.

Very telling were NARAL President Kate Michelman’s comments after the White House announced the new policy. “Bush’s actions and statements,” she said, “have demonstrated his agenda to restrict access to reproductive health services for women whenever possible.”

Michelman reveals an emerging truth about the feminist establishment. This establishment believes abortion rights to be at the heart of reproductive rights, which are the third leg of the women’s liberation triad (with the abolition of gender roles and economic inequality as the other two components). Because of abortion’s importance, protecting “a woman’s right to choose” has become the central mission of most women’s rights organizations.

More than simply an issue of private conscience, abortion strikes at the heart of what it means to be a woman. As the top feminists see it, the capacity to bear children is emblematic of past oppression and antiquated notions of womanhood. Too often in the past, it was a capacity which limited the kinds of lives women were able to lead and the freedoms which they were able to enjoy.

Women suffered from cumbersome stereotypes and condescending social customs associated with being the bearers of children. In trying to break out of the restrictions which these unfair traditions placed on women, feminists seized on the right to abortion as one of a cavalcade of rights which would jettison tradition forever.

However, Michelman’s statement demonstrates how central abortion has become to women’s rights advocates’ conception of women and the institution of motherhood. Each pregnant woman stands instinctively compelled to abort her child, kept from this only by pernicious government policy or fortunate whim. Gone are the days when abortion was a terrible solution to pregnancy approached with pained reluctance.

There is a snide zeal present among those at the top of women’s rights groups which invites speculation into how detached these leaders are from ordinary women. Most women are or will be mothers, and consequently view “mom” as a title of nobility. While motherhood is clearly not for all women, it is still essential to the women’s historical narrative, and as important a symbol of womanhood as any.