Anti-Choice Stealth Strategy Focuses on States

George W. Bush says he's not trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, but women's advocates say rampant anti-choice legislation in the states could make its way to the Supreme Court where Bush-appointed conservatives could strike down the right to choose.

Pro-choice demonstrator

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-Limos pulled up to the luxurious entrance of Manhattan's premier fund-raising-dinner hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, and disgorged expensively dressed couples rushing to a highly priced dinner.

Standing on the sidewalk behind police barricades, a small crowd of pro-choice activists, dressed in jeans and suits, held signs proclaiming, “If Priests Got Pregnant, Abortion Would Be a Sacrament.”

This scene on the evening of the National Right to Life Committee dinner to honor Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, epitomizes the current status of the two movements: With an anti-choice occupant in the White House, those who oppose abortion are very much insiders, while those anxious to preserve and expand women's right to reproductive health can do little other than protest on the sidelines.

The day after the dinner, April 26, the House passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, approving a bill that would criminalize hurting or killing a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman. The bill protects “a member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of development.” Pro-choice advocates criticize the bill as being a back-door attempt to define a fetus as a human with rights. Whether or when the Senate will consider the bill is unknown.

This is just the most recent victory of anti-choice forces. Pro-choice advocates are reacting by launching a major lobbying campaign on behalf of woman's right to choose.

“We're not going to be the generation that both won and lost a woman's right to control her own body,” said Rosemary Dempsey, Washington director of policy and government relations at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

“It's clear that both during the campaign, and since Bush has been sworn in as the president, he has said one thing about reproductive rights, particularly regarding Roe v. Wade, and done another,” she said.

Added Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America: “Those who oppose a woman's right to choose have been emboldened by both the words and deeds of this new administration.”

Anti-Choice Crusade Expanding to Birth Control

Moreover, the anti-choice campaign is expanding its portfolio to being anti-family planning as well. Bush reinstated the global gag rule, which would cut family planning funds to international organizations that use their own funds to provide or give counseling on abortion. The Bush budget proposal also eliminated the requirement that insurance companies provide federal employees with a full range of contraceptives.

Efforts to restrict contraception availability could undermine the conservatives' strategy, women's advocates said, because if Americans might not notice state efforts to restrict abortion, they will certainly react to their attacks on contraception.

“I think it's a ridiculous strategy because if they continue, they're going to alienate the moderates,” says Lynn Grefe, national director of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. “And I know many people now who are switching parties over social issues like this.”

“President Bush did not exactly win by a landslide, and people did trust that he was going to be a compassionate conservative. Family planning is a compassionate issue. He needs to get behind that,” Grefe added.

Yet, the inside-the-beltway events may not be the most worrisome. Pro-choice advocates say that a host of state regulations limiting different aspects of women's reproductive health choices could end up before a Supreme Court hostile to abortion rights.

The most recent high court ruling was decided by a 5-4 majority, with Sandra Day O'Connor casting the swing vote. Rumors abound that she, or another member of the five pro-choice justices, desires to retire.

Bush and his attorney general, John Ashcroft, have said they will not try to overturn Roe v. Wade-the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that established that most abortions were private decisions-yet Bush and Ashcroft also say they are personally against abortion rights. Thus, women's rights advocates see that reversal as a very real possibility if Bush has the opportunity to name even one Supreme Court justice.

Stealth Strategy: Restricting Abortion Rights in States

In addition, anti-choice advocates have won significant restrictions on the right to abortion nationwide by pushing for anti-choice state legislation.

Opponents of abortion rights have adopted a strategy of maintaining a low public profile and advocating restrictions on abortion, rather than openly questioning its legality, according to Adrienne Verrilli, senior policy and communication analyst at the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.

“I think they'll be inclined to restrict choice through as many actions that are below the radar screen as possible,” added Elizabeth Cavendish, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, NARAL. “So, for instance, they will misuse the regulatory process to allow parents to view their children's health records, even regarding abortion and contraception, and other sensitive issues. But they'll do it through a regulation, which is less high-profile.”

This stealth strategy of regressive legislation and regulation has meant that only 14 percent of counties in the country have an abortion provider, and one-third of women of reproductive age have no access to an abortion provider in their own counties.

From 1995 to 2000, states enacted 262 anti-choice pieces of legislation. In 2000 alone, 43 such measures were adopted, according to NARAL. At the same time, Congress voted 134 times on reproductive rights and pro-choice advocates won only 24 of these votes.

Many Laws Require Anti-Abortion Counseling, Waiting Periods

States have passed laws requiring parental consent or parental notification, 24-hour waiting periods, and abortion-alternative counseling. Other laws impose onerous and costly regulations on abortion providers and still others deny funding for abortions to currently poor women.

Some examples:

  • In Illinois, the Senate passed a parental notice law last month, putting the privacy rights of teens in jeopardy.
  • In Minnesota, a Senate health and human services spending bill last week was amended, requiring women to get counseling and wait 24 hours before having an abortion. Gov. Jesse Ventura announced he would veto it.
  • In Florida, the state refuses to permit its health insurance program for the poor to pay for medically necessary abortions. The rule is now facing review by the Florida Supreme Court.

At the state level, these restrictions were made possible by a 1992 Supreme Court decision that allowed restrictions on abortions as long as the restrictions don't impose an “undue burden” on women's ability to exercise their right to have an abortion.

“You don't have any other so-called fundamental right so restricted,” said Dempsey, citing the right to free speech, free association and free exercise of religion.

Since that decision, measures restricting abortion have flourished in states with anti-abortion legislatures. Only nine states rate an A grade for most fully protecting the right to choose-Hawaii, three West Coast states and a handful of northern states-and 13 states have a failing grade, ranging from Georgia to South Dakota, according to a NARAL's ranking.

Washington is on one end of the scale, with its own clinic protection act, coverage by the state's health insurance, no parental notification rule, no counseling requirement and no limitation that only physicians perform the procedure. Louisiana is on the other end, with minimal public funding, a conscience clause and requirements for counseling, husband involvement, informed consent and parental notification.

For more information, visit:

Center for Reproductive Law and Policy:

National Abortion Federation:

National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America:

National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association:

Republican Pro-Choice Coalition:

See a summary of current anti-choice state and federal legislation:

In addition, many states still have laws on their books banning abortion.

Felt said these dormant laws “could be put into effect almost immediately” if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v Wade. “At the state level, it's not just about chipping away at abortion rights.”

Right to Life Committee Orders Introduction of Identical Bills

Vicki Saporta, executive director for the National Abortion Federation, said she has seen increasing numbers of anti-choice bills in the states, often identical.

“The National Right to Life Committee, for example, puts out a so-called partial birth abortion ban,” Saporta said, “and gives the instruction that there can be no amendments, no modification, whatsoever. So, the exact same bill is introduced across the country.”

On the streets, in the states, inside the beltway, the battle between two polar-opposite camps continues to be fought, with the outcome far from certain.

On the night of the Waldorf dinner, a frail woman wearing glasses and a green coat approached the protestors to tell them that “life is important.”

Young men and women blended with older supporters and started to chant together to cover her voice.

She came back twice, intending to spread the “good word,” she said, but after the pro-choice side started their third round of “He, he, ho, ho! The right to life has got to go,” the woman in the green coat retreated.

Laurence Pantin is a journalist based in New York. She recently received an award from the Foreign Press Association to cover labor issues in Mexico and other international topics.