Bart Stupak is probably a nice, regular guy. It’s just that he belongs to a sub-species which cannot fully understand the need for a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. As it turns out, a growing number of the other sub-species don’t fully understand it either. This is because that right has existed since before they were born. One person who does understand is Representative Louise Slaughter, for whom the right to choose is not just an abstract. The battle now being fought by Slaughter and others is detailed in a New York Times article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg:
In the early 1950s, a coal miner’s daughter from rural Kentucky named Louise McIntosh encountered the shadowy world of illegal abortion. A friend was pregnant, with no prospects for marriage, and Ms. McIntosh was keeper of a secret that, if spilled, could have led to family disgrace. The turmoil ended quietly in a doctor’s office, and the friend went on to marry and have four children.
Today, Louise McIntosh is Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York. At 80, she is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus — a member of what Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, calls “the menopausal militia.”
The militia was working overtime in Washington last week, plotting strategy for the coming debate over President Obama’s proposed health care overhaul. With the Senate set to take up its measure on Monday, a fight over federal funding for abortion is threatening to thwart the bill — a development that has both galvanized the abortion rights movement and forced its leaders to turn inward, raising questions about how to carry their agenda forward in a complex, 21st-century world.
Not all stories such as that of Louise McIntosh’s friend had happy endings. More of them ended in doctors offices only after botched abortions left women permanently scarred and frequently barren, although last-minute treatment led to survival. Still more of them ended in terrible pain, isolation and death. But because those stories slowly faded into abstractions, even the women who will write new ones when legal abortion is denied them have a hard time understanding how critical this fight for health and sanity is.
It has been nearly 37 years since Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a right to abortion, and in that time, an entire generation — including Mr. Obama, who was 11 when Roe was decided — has grown up without memories like those Ms. Slaughter says are “seared into my mind.” The result is a generational divide — not because younger women are any less supportive of abortion rights than their elders, but because their frame of reference is different.
“Here is a generation that has never known a time when abortion has been illegal,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who studies attitudes toward abortion. “For many of them, the daily experience is: It’s legal and if you really need one you can probably figure out how to get one. So when we send out e-mail alerts saying, ‘Oh my God, write to your senator,’ it’s hard for young people to have that same sense of urgency.”
Polls over the last two decades have shown that a clear majority of Americans support the right to abortion, and there’s little evidence of a difference between those over 30 and under 30, but the vocabulary of the debate has shifted with the political culture. Ms. Keenan, who is 57, says women like her, who came of age when abortion was illegal, tend to view it in stark political terms — as a right to be defended, like freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But younger people tend to view abortion as a personal issue, and their interests are different.
The 30- to 40-somethings — “middle-school moms and dads,” Ms. Keenan calls them — are more concerned with educating their children about sex, and generally too busy to be bothered with political causes. The 25-and-under crowd, animated by activism, sees a deeper threat in climate change or banning gay marriage or the Darfur genocide than in any rollback of reproductive rights. Naral is running focus groups with these “millennials” to better learn how they think.
“The language and values, if you are older, is around the right to control your own body, reproductive freedom, sexual liberation as empowerment,” said Ms. Greenberg, the pollster. “That is a baby-boom generation way of thinking. If you look at people under 30, that is not their touchstone, it is not wrapped up around feminism and women’s rights.”
Abortion opponents are reveling in the shift and hope to capitalize. “Not only is this the post-Roe generation, I’d also call it the post-sonogram generation,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, who notes that baby’s first video now occurs in the womb, often accompanied by music. “They can take the video and do the music and send it to the grandmother. We don’t even talk anymore about the hypothesis that having an abortion is like having an appendectomy. All of this informs the political pressures on Capitol Hill.”
Well, I am the grandmother. Those videos are not the baby. They are images of an embryo in the body of a sentient human being whose life does not belong to Bart Stupak.
The women who will suffer and die if the right to choose a legal abortion is denied, though, are not women who get pretty little sonogram videos made for their grandmothers and their scrapbooks. They are the very young, the desperate, the poor. They deserve respect. They have rights.
The pressures relating to abortion had seemed, for a time, to go dormant. Mr. Obama, who campaigned on a vow to transcend “the culture wars,” even managed to win confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, without the usual Washington abortion uproar. Most of his political energy around abortion has been spent trying to forge consensus on ways to reduce unintended pregnancies.
The quiet was shattered this month, when the House — with surprising support from 64 Democrats — amended its health care bill to include language by Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, barring the use of federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion. Lawmakers like Ms. Slaughter, who advocate for abortion rights, found themselves in the uncomfortable position of voting for the larger health bill even though the Stupak language was in it.
Proponents of the Stupak language say they are simply following existing federal law, which already bars taxpayer financing for abortions. Democratic leaders want a less restrictive provision that would require insurance companies to segregate federal money from private premiums, which could be used to purchase plans that cover abortion.
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida and chief deputy whip of the House, blames what she calls the complacency of her own generation for the political climate that allowed Mr. Stupak to prevail. At 43, the mother of three children, she has taken up the abortion rights cause in Congress, as she did as a state legislator.
But if she had to round up her own friends “to go down to the courthouse steps and rally for choice,” she said, she is not certain she could. When older women have warned that reproductive rights are being eroded, she said, “basically my generation and younger have looked at them as crying wolf.”
Unfortunately, reproductive rights have already been eroded, and it’s about to get worse.
The question now is whether the Stop Stupak coalition can succeed. Ms. Wasserman Schultz sees the debate as a chance to rouse women of all generations, and Ms. Slaughter warns that if Mr. Obama signs a bill including the amendment, it will be challenged in court. She says she has worried for years about what would happen “when my generation was gone.”
At the moment, her concern has diminished. “Right now, I’ve never seen women so angry,” Ms. Slaughter said. “And the people that were angriest with me were my three daughters.”
Being a member of Ms. Slaughter’s generation myself, my concern is still pretty high. My concern is for those women who don’t have the education, access and opportunities of our own daughters and granddaughters, those women who will suffer and die if their rights are taken away. If we have to cave to the likes of Bart Stupak — and the ultra-conservatives, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — in order to get a health bill, then so be it. But once we get a bill, the Menopausal Militia will continue to fight for those women threatened with suffering and death. Because we remember the stories, and they are terrible stories.