Wed, Nov 10, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Women's rights face unparalleled threat

Bush is back in the White House - which almost certainly means a fresh assault on the right to legal abortion in the US

By Katie Roiphe  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

These are dark days in the US, the darkest in recent memory for women's reproductive rights. Women across the country are shuddering in their bathrobes to hear US President George W. Bush use the word "mandate" to describe his recent election victory. Just look at what he did when he so clearly didn't have a mandate, back in 2000. For the first time in recent history, Roe vs Wade is seriously imperiled.

The right to choose our own reproductive destinies, a right which we have taken for granted for decades now, is, after last week, extremely precarious. Bush may have more than one Supreme Court justice to appoint over the next four years: 80-year-old conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist is currently gravely sick and several others are close to retirement. At the federal level, with his increased majority in the Senate, Bush can now appoint judges who will slowly chip away at a woman's fundamental right to choose. Over the past four years, he has made no secret of his desire to do this, of his support for the prettily phrased "culture of life", as he -- or his speech writers -- put it. It is unfortunate that the Democrats failed to make enough of this issue in their election campaign.

I have no desire to enter into the general atmosphere of Kerry-bashing and Democratic self-flagellation, currently in full swing in the US. I think Kerry ran a dignified and powerful campaign, and we have to remember that he lost in what was actually a fairly close election. But he did bungle the pro-choice issue.

In a series of otherwise masterful performances in the televised debates against Bush, he appeared visibly nervous whenever the issue of abortion came up. He reminded us of his Catholic background; he told us how uncomfortable he is personally with abortion -- before saying that he would protect a woman's right to choose. A squeamishness and general discomfort with the issue communicated itself to the American viewer.

He never said, clearly and forcefully, what many American women already knew -- that, if elected, Bush would undermine and attempt to overturn Roe vs Wade, and that our right to safe and legal abortion would very likely disappear. Nor did he press Bush into clarifying his own position on the issue, which would have forced the president to alienate the vast majority of moderate female voters who believe that women should have control over their own bodies.

I believe a truly powerful answer to that one question, in that one moment, would have brought countless women voters out for Kerry. Throughout his campaign, the polls showed that Kerry had a surprising degree of trouble reaching women, who historically vote Democrat; his silence on this one important issue allowed Bush to put security, and the Republican-voting "security mom," center stage.

A large majority of the US, men and women, support Roe vs Wade. Instead of pandering to the undecided voter with pro-life leanings -- who was never going to vote Democrat anyway -- Kerry should have followed Bush's example and mobilized his own base. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney never shied away from using scare tactics to secure voters; Kerry should have got the message out, in no uncertain terms, that under the second term of a Bush administration American women might very well lose their right to choose.

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