The pro-choice paths not taken

by Wade Rathke

December 6, 2021

New Orleans    There was a depressing op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Losing the Fight Over Abortion” by Amy Littlefield, a correspondent for The Nation. Sadly, this may be the first of many post-mortems for Roe v. Wade, even before the Supreme Court puts the knife in its heart after decades with hundreds of cuts by courts, cities, and states. Even more discouraging was a feeling that Littlefield’s arguments were ones that almost any organizer or campaigner would have felt aligned to basic strategy and tactics in the work. These were paths not taken, but very well-traveled.

Littlefield acknowledges that there were factors that the pro-choice movement could not control, but cites her discussions and interviews “with more than 50 advocates, analysts, abortion providers, and legal experts” in finding “a sense of the movement being forced to reckon with its mistakes. Chief among those mistakes was the relative neglect of grass-roots groups in states where the battle over abortion has been quietly waged for half a century.” Resources and energy were spent in Washington over federal policy and hopes were pinned on the courts, leaving local fights in cities and states starved for sufficient resources as the anti-choice forces changed strategies.

It’s a classic move, certainly one that ACORN used in the living wage fight when efforts to raise the federal minimum wage stalled during the Clinton administration, that when blocked nationally to make change, find the seams of possibility in the local and state arena. As Littlefield notes, that’s exactly what happened here:

Having lost at the Supreme Court, anti-abortion organizations set out to restrict abortion in cities and states. By the late 1970s, the leading anti-abortion group at the time, the National Right to Life Committee, had a staggering 3,000 local chapters. NARAL, meanwhile, devoted so few resources to its state affiliates that by the 1990s its national field department quit in protest, according to Gloria Totten, NARAL’s political director from 1996 to 2001.

NARAL, originally known as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, has now offloaded all of its affiliates for a chapter model “that will give the national organization more control.”

The Hyde Amendment in 1976, named after a Republican Congressman from Illinois, was a rider to ban federal funding of abortion as part of Medicaid was a direct attack on poor women, many of whom were minorities as well, which with court support created “a two-tiered system: Those with resources could get one, and many of those without could not.” Women’s organizations led predominately by white-women didn’t make didn’t make this an existential fight, and the inevitable happened. A lower tier in a two-tiered system always erodes the upper level in time, just as we see in wage agreements. Littlefield cites Faye Wattleton, the first Black woman to lead Planned Parenthood who “faced an uprising” in her organization and from “Democrats and abortion-rights groups willing to trade poor women’s access for other priorities” making the ban a permanent part of the budget process and a fig leaf of cover against the anti-abortion groups.

The anti-abortion groups make state and local elections their battlegrounds, creating political alliances that turned scores of state legislatures into allies where their single-issue was a litmus test. In fairness it is unclear if pro-choice forces could have won, but the reckoning beginning now is whether they fully engaged the fight or simply played defense, somewhat in fear, while trying to hold the fort with the courts. The blame game won’t save women’s lives, but there are lessons here that are worth debate and argue for moving in different directions on this issue and many others in the future.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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