Shifts in the Abortion Scene
During the past decade of legal abortion in the United States—a period of heightened political conservatism—advocates of women’s reproductive freedom have faced a complicated paradox. Women’s "right" to abortion remains, at least at this writing, embedded in the formal apparatus of the law and, depending on the wording of the questions, commands remarkably consistent and continuous support in national public opinion polls.2 Moreover, neither antiabortion crusades, innumerable court challenges, bureaucratic regulations, curtailment of Medicaid funding in all but a handful of states, a moratorium on all federal research on abortifacients, clinic harassment, nor bombings have made a significant dent in abortion practice; around one and one-half million women a year in the United States still persist in getting abortions. This pattern confirms an essential argument of the book: that access to abortion will continue to be perceived by women as a necessity; if not a "right/’ so long as pregnancies occur in women’s bodies.
Yet, all around the edges of this little kernel of "right," tempers flare, firebombs destroy medical offices, antiabortion "rescue" squads harass patients and providers, and litigations pit pregnant women against vengeful spouses and irate male fetal advocates. Perhaps most serious of all, fetuses (and babies) have become icons of popular culture beside which pregnant women languish in disrepute. This cultural guerrilla warfare against abortions (and the women who get them) has created a climate hospitable to the ultimate undoing of Roe v. Wade, an aim supported by many of the conservative judges with whom the Reagan administration had by 1988 filled the country’s highest courts. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (July 1989), a plurality of the Supreme Court, without actually rescinding the abortion right, was, in Justice Blackmun’s dissenting words, opening the door to "more and more restrictive" state regulation that will impede its "meaningful exercise."
This radical shift seems strange in light of the failures of antiabortion forces in the past decade in conventional political arenas. Since the Hyde Amendment curtailing federal funding of abortions in 1977, not a single major piece of antiabortion legislation has passed through Congress. Restrictive state laws imposing administrative barriers, hospitalization for second-trimester abortions, parental consent or notification requirements for minors, and the like were—until Webster—usually blocked or softened by
the federal courts. Moreover, a study of congressional and presidential elections from 1974 through 1986 shows that "abortion has had little or no influence on the outcome of the vast majority of races, and that the antiabortion movement has not been able to deliver on its threats to retaliate at the polls. . . ."3 Particularly after the 1986 elections, when the Democrats recaptured control of the Senate, it became clear that the prospects for antiabortion legislative initiatives in that body were null. And, despite the election of two Republican presidents who have strongly voiced antiabortion rhetoric, the Republican Party itself is not a bastion of antiabortion sentiment. Many Republicans, including a majority of convention delegates, oppose a constitutional amendment that would prohibit abortion, even though support for such an amendment was an official part of the party’s platform in 1984 and 1988.4
But in retrospect these failures appear negligible relative to the most effective political gain of the antiabortion movement in this period: the election of a president committed to appointing, and presented the opportunity to appoint, conservatives who would pass the "litmus test" to the federal and Supreme Court benches. The real question is not how we tally up "pro-life" gains and losses in electoral and legislative contests but, rather, how "antiabortion" came to be a sign for the whole range of conservative values. In contrast to their limited gains in formal institutional politics, antiabortion forces have registered a seismic impact on symbolic politics, that is, on cultural and political discourse, media imagery, and popular perceptions. In the last six years the U. S. antiabortion movement has shifted its strategic course from mass mailings to the mass media, from religious language and authorities to medico-technical ones, and from lobbying and lawsuits to clinic harassment and violence. The sharp escalation since 1983 of violent methods aimed against abortion clients and providers not only illustrates the frustration of antiabortionists and their tacit alliance with elements of the far right.5 It also confirms another of the book’s main arguments: that abortion is the fulcrum of a much broader ideological struggle in which the very meanings of the family, the state, motherhood, and young women’s sexuality are contested.
While unable to diminish the practice of abortion, the shift to violence and street theater in antiabortion methods has deeply affected people’s experience of abortion, whether as a mass cultural event or an intimate personal crisis. The white male leadership of "Operation Rescue" sits-ins— sometimes using the same church networks that have formed the base for "pro-life" electoral campaigns—seeks immediately to block and intimidate women from getting abortions. Beyond that, however, by staging mass arrests, they aim to create network television dramas that tell the story of antiabortion sentiment as righteous, militant, and pervasive.6 The impact of these methods is highly constructed by the habitual formats and selfcensorship of the mass media, particularly television, which produces "reality" in the form of the twenty-second bites producers believe people want to see. Like other kinds of "news/’ the "abortion story" is prefabricated to suit a projected consumer market.7 This is not to deny that antiabortion violence and theatrics have been effective. These tactics have enshrouded abortion practice in a climate of guilt, intimidation, sensationalism, and the grotesque. Moreover, they have had a directly inhibiting effect on the delivery of abortion services. As doctors and clinics confront pickets, patient boycotts, vandalism, threatening phone calls, and the loss of insurance, it is not surprising that "the number of physicians still willing to perform abortions… is diminishing."8
We need to delve deeper than sensational or intimidating tactics to uncover why the antiabortion movement seems to be succeeding on the cultural front where it faltered through "politics." Two distinct but related explanations come to mind. The first has to do with the discursive and representational strategies deployed by antiabortionists and their New Right allies, particularly those strategies that construct the fetus as icon, "person," or public personality. The second has to do with the more or less receptive field upon which such images play: the social, demographic, and sexual changes in young women’s lives, and ordinary people’s attempts to interpret those changes through the scrim of their own losses and longings.