Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Politics and policy.
April 22 2004 5:44 PM

Happy Endings

Rethinking and repackaging abortion rights.

Pro-choice protesters
Taking a new tack on an old argument

Abortion on demand and without apology.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Patriarchy's got to go.

Dead women can't cook your meals.

Hey Bush! We wish your mother had a choice!


Those were some of the slogans on display 15 years ago when pro-choice activists marched in Washington for abortion rights. This weekend, for the first time since 1992, they're marching again. National television crews will be on hand. Another President Bush, this time backed by a Republican House and Senate, has just signed into law the first federal ban on an abortion procedure and the first federal law classifying the human embryo as a "child" under the U.S. criminal code. The Supreme Court, which hasn't changed since 1994, is due for a slew of retirements.

It's a crucial moment for the abortion rights movement. Don't blow it.

Marches attract passionate advocates and concentrate them in one place. They foster the illusion that you and your sisters who have filled the National Mall represent a cross-section of America. You don't. Most Americans hate abortion and don't consider themselves feminists. You need the votes of these people. Praise abortion, shout about patriarchy, and you'll alienate them for another decade.

Smart feminists understand this. In 1989, they drowned out the radicals in their ranks by filling the pro-choice march on Washington with signs, buttons, and stickers asking, "Who Decides? You or them?" This message, developed by the National Abortion Rights Action League after months of polling and focus groups, was designed to appeal to voters who considered themselves moderate or somewhat conservative. The marchers thought "you or them" meant "women or sexists." The public thought it meant "families or government." The latter interpretation cut to the heart of conservative thinking. People who had previously voted Republican because they thought the government should stay out of the family began to vote Democratic—most notably in Virginia, where they elected a black governor for the first and only time in the history of the South.

The conservative message succeeded brilliantly at keeping abortion legal. The Virginia election scared the dickens out of the GOP. President George H.W. Bush and other Republican politicians retreated from their threats to ban abortion. In 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, noting (without acknowledging its obvious influence) that pressure to overturn Roe had been countered by increasingly intense "pressure to retain it." Even today, George W. Bush cautions, "I don't think the culture has changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress would totally ban abortions."

But that doesn't mean Bush and his allies can't restrict abortion in other ways. They can, and they have. They have plastered the country with laws banning Medicaid-funded abortions and requiring minors to get parental consent explicitly or implicitly (through mandatory notification) before terminating pregnancies. The conservative argument used by smart feminists to keep abortion legal—namely, that the government should stay out of the family—hasn't stopped these laws. If anything, it has reinforced these laws, since many people who consider themselves "pro-choice" view parental consent requirements and the elimination of tax-funded abortions as ways to keep abortion decisions in the hands of the family, not the government.