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Pro-choice activists can’t give up on the right to an abortion

Slate.com’s William Saletan caused a bit of a stir with a January 22 New York Times column arguing that reproductive-rights activists need to give up on abortion. Great, I said. Let’s just do away with equal protection and the right to privacy, period. Frankly, I’m exhausted from fighting this administration every step of the way over my library records, my right to associate with environmentalists sans surveillance, and my brother’s right to marry whom he pleases.

Saletan is the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, which essentially argues that the right to abortion is untenable because everyone knows, whether they admit it or not, that the procedure kills a forthcoming human being. Most Americans, he concluded in his op-ed, agree that, “It’s bad to kill a fetus.” Abortion is only acceptable to the general public as a stop-gap measure, he says, and it’s time for abortion-rights advocates to focus their attention on preventing pregnancy, not dealing with the consequences after sperm meets egg.

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Saletan crafts such lucid prose that it might take the reader a while to realize that in this apparently smart man the religious right has found a willing Trojan Horse. Give up abortion, he insists, and the far right loses the moral high ground when it comes to sex. The Saletan Winning Formula would look something like this: Subtract Roe v. Wade, add sex-ed classes and over-the-counter RU486 — the controversial morning-after pill — and win!

The flaw in the math is that the religious right has no intention of conceding the battleground over abstinence-only sex ed, banning contraceptives — or on a host of other issues in which religious beliefs clash with individual rights, from gay marriage to straight divorce. The reproductive-rights movement has pushed contraceptives and education as the pillars of reproductive freedom for more than a decade, but this emphasis has brought no concession from its opponents. And once you concede that a female citizen’s rights under the law might be less than a male citizen’s because she is the one who gets pregnant when they get it on, you have lost an essential foundation for individual human rights.

Constitutional fundamentalists have ridiculed the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling, in which Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “this right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” But imagine an America in which a right to privacy isn’t implicit in the Constitution. You can forget contraceptives, because it is this unwritten but fundamental right that the Court used to strike down state laws criminalizing their sale and distribution. If pro-choice activists relinquish the right to abortion, anti-choice activists will only be emboldened.

What makes arguments such as Saletan’s most dangerous is that, unconsciously or not, he adopts the anti-woman rhetoric of the anti-choice crowd. “... at least half of our unintended pregnancies are attributable to women who didn’t use contraception,” he writes. “The pregnancy rate among these women astronomically exceeds the pregnancy rate among women who use contraception.” Thanks, Big Daddy. One suggestion: If you’re going to blame just us for unintended pregnancies, how about leaving just us in charge of the solution?

By Elaine Wolff


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