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Slippery Slope: Democratic Wavering in the Battle for Reproductive Rights

February 25, 2004

Here we go again. Once again, the anti-choice movement, with support from congressional conservatives and President Bush, is pushing legislation that chips away at women’s reproductive rights. Once again, squeamish Democrats in the House and Senate are going along for the ride. And once again, they are playing directly into their opponents’ hands, helping to bring about the gradual undermining of abortion rights.

Bait and Switch

The conservative lever in steadily creating fetal legal rights this time is the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act." Also known as “Laci and Conner’s Law” (named after murder victim Laci Peterson), the UVVA bill would define as separate federal crimes the injury to or killing of both a woman and her fetus. Passed twice by the House in 1999 and 2001, the legislation is coming before both houses again. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said the bill is a priority; President Bush has vowed to sign it.

The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania and Senator Mike Dewine of Ohio, are following the lead of 28 states that have passed similar laws. (Kentucky and Virginia are in the process of following suit.) The bill would enable federal prosecutors to charge a person with two murders for the killing of a woman also resulting in the death of her fetus, or with murder for an attack that kills the fetus but the mother survives. The proposal would apply only to federal crimes, such as terrorist incidents, interstate cases or those that occur on military bases or federal land. (The bill specifically precludes from prosecution those who carry out legal abortions.)

As was the case with the partial-birth abortion ban signed by President Bush in November 2003, the true motivations of the anti-choice forces are never far below the surface. Genevieve Wood of the stridently anti-abortion Family Research Council stated plainly that “it's a step in the right direction, toward recognizing the humanity of the unborn.”

And yet, Democratic allies of reproductive rights equivocated. Representative Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Senator Dianne Feinstein offered “compromise” legislation that, without conferring separate legal rights to the fetus, would enhance penalties for attacks that lead to the termination or interruption of a pregnancy. This is not sufficient for red-meat anti-choice forces in Congress; ultimately, this approach will be rejected by the GOP-controlled House.

Deja Vu All Over Again

We’ve been here before and will be here again. The much longer and protracted debate over partial-birth abortion showcases the conservatives’ slippery-slope formula for sabotaging the American consensus for abortion rights. First, highlight a viscerally gruesome medical procedure (as in the case of intact dilation and extraction) that evinces a powerful gut-level reaction or a case that generates natural feelings of sympathy (e.g. Laci Peterson). Second, play on and publicize apparent majority support for banning the practice in question. Last, brand the practice using a term, such as “partial-birth” or “unborn victim”, which makes opposition virtually impossible.

As with “Unborn Victims” bill, the forces aligned against abortion rights were clear about their intent. In 1996, John Jakubczyk, the general counsel of Arizona Right to Life, stated that “by going after partial-birth abortions, we're trying to show the extreme radical view of the pro-abortion lobby. But no, that procedure isn't what we care most about. Our goal is to stop the killing of unborn children at any stage of development.” Randall Terry, founder of the extremist group Operation Rescue, put it bluntly, the “partial birth abortion ban is a political scam, but a public relations goldmine.”

President Clinton held the line against this approach, twice vetoing partial-birth legislation in the 1990’s. While Republican majorities in Congress could not override his veto, the ascension of George W. Bush and his radical anti-choice agenda assured the legislation would become law under his watch.

It did. Congress passed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 on October 22, 2003. Large numbers of Democrats joined a nearly unanimous GOP in both houses; the bill passed 63-34 in the Senate, and 281-142 in the House. President Bush signed it into law at a White House ceremony on November 5.

A prescient Senator Barbara Boxer commented called it a “very sad day for the women of America, a very sad day for the families of America” and added that “for the first time in history bans a medical procedure without making any exception for the health of a woman.”

In aftermath of its signing, several pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law. As of this writing, Attorney General Ashcroft in yet another privacy invasion is seeking doctors’ medical records as proof of the need for the procedure. Despite Boxer’s admonitions to those in Washington that “you don't play doctor here”, they are doing exactly that.

Dear John Letter

Which brings us back to the slippery slope. In May 2003, Senator John Kerry, while in line with the Lofgren/Feinstein approach, rhetorically took a strong pro-choice stand on UVVA:

I believe that an attack on a pregnant woman should carry increased penalties. However, legislation granting a fetus the same legal status in all stages of development as a human being is not the appropriate response. I have serious concerns about this legislation because the law cannot simultaneously provide that a fetus is a human being and protect the right of the mother to choose to terminate her pregnancy. Therefore, I do not support the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

Presidential candidate John Kerry now finds himself in the cross-hairs of the  anti-choice trap. Laci Peterson’s mother, Sharon Rocha, has emerged as a strong and high-profile supporter of UVVA laws. She sent him a letter strongly supporting UVVA, writing that “our grandson did live. He had a name, he was loved, and his life was violently taken from him before he ever saw the sun.”

Talk about an uphill struggle. Hopefully, for the cause of protecting women's reproductive rights, it won't be downhill from here.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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