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The Danger of Apathy
April 4, 2002
By Patrick Ennis

In the decade prior the the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling declaring state bans on abortion unconstitutional, pro-choice activism abounded throughout America. With anywhere from 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions performed in the 50's and 60's and with illegal abortion accounting for 17% of all deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth in 1965, when at least 193 women died from illegal abortions, it was coming to be viewed as an urgent public health issue. Indeed, even before the Roe decision, more than a dozen states already had lawsuits in the courts challenging their criminal abortion laws.

But that was then, over 30 years ago. Many women have come to take reproductive choice for granted. They are complacent and apathetic. The fervor of the pro-choice and feminist activism of the 60's and early 70's has cooled off dramatically, and now is rarely seen outside a few isolated pockets of traditional liberalism, such as Boston, San Francisco, and New York City.

The oppostion, by contrast, is more rabid than ever. Their high-profile - and often violent - anti-choice activism has helped polarize the country politically, and led to an alarming and still increasing number of restrictions on reproductive choice in many, if not most, states.

President Bush's choice of the vehemently anti-choice right-wing zealot John Ashcroft as Attorney General, coupled with his support for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and for a proposal to make "unborn children" (as opposed to pregnant mothers) eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) signal his administration's hostility to legalized abortion and readiness to accelerate the legal assault against it. Like true conservatives, they care deeply about people, right up until they're born.

The Radical Right, meanwhile, in typical duplicitous fashion, downplays the threat to Roe while exaggerating the prevalence and level of acceptance of abortion, at all stages of pregnancy. To hear Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell tell it, your 16 year-old can have an abortion performed in her school counselor's office while going over college brochures, and pick up free condoms for use on prom night while she's there.

They love to point out that donations to National Right To Life are not tax deductible, implying government endorsement of abortion (and discrimination against them!) a specious argument considering that donations to NARAL and the National Abortion Federation are not deductible, either. Of course, they conveniently leave that part out. They bristle at the use of the very word abortion, insisting on "legalized infanticide" instead, and throw around terms like holocaust and genocide, backed by scary sounding numbers.

They tug at heart strings with graphic photos of aborted fetuses, appearing to be perfectly formed, and vivid and sickening descriptions of the late-term abortion procedure, which they call "partial birth", while conveniently forgetting to mention how infrequently the procedure is performed, or the fact that it is usually only legal if the mother's life is in danger.

Opinion polls continue to show, even after years of this relentless and-hard hitting PR campaign by abortion opponents, that a solid majority of Americans support the right to choose. So why does the Radical Right dominate the abortion debate? Because they are not interested in fairness, and because they are the only ones doing any shouting right now, an illustration of the goal of social activism, if not a clear demonstration of its effectiveness. Choice activists haven't been the loudest voices in the dispute since 1973. Perhaps this means that, when you are no. 2, you really do work harder.

The anti-choice campaign to undermine Roe v. Wade, despite its impressive organization, funding, and enthusiasm, is unlikely to change the minds of most Americans about the acceptability of legalized abortion. But that is not necessary to effect legal change. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, after all, and don't fear public opinion.

But the politicians who appoint them do. And if we allow Bush and radical conservatives in Congress to act on their own consciences - assuming they have any - there is a very real threat to reverse the impressive gains made in the area of women's reproductive health since Roe. This is the danger of apathy.

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