The militant Operation Rescue leaders brought their campaign of intimidation to Los Angeles last week, and local supporters of women’s rights proved they would not bow to the pressure. Clearly, the demonstrators had some impact by publicizing their cause and keeping some women away from the clinics. Just as clearly, those who support keeping abortion legal had an impact by showing that they would not be bullied. None of this, however, raises the level of debate.
The clinics that were picketed last week will not close merely because people are willing to violate the law to blockade their entrances. They may close or be severely restricted, however, if the U.S. Supreme Court reinterprets its own decision on how closely states may regulate abortion. That is the real threat, and both sides are trying to ensure that their point of view cannot escape the justices’ notice as they deliberate a Missouri case in coming months. The automobile convoys, the placards, the walkie-talkies employed here last week may be only a preview if the court throws abortion regulation open to the 50 state legislatures.
Abortion is the latest in the long chain of volatile issues that has emerged as women seek to change their place in American life. Past conflicts have emerged when women, left out of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, sought not to be considered the property of their husbands, to own real property themselves, to attend college, to vote, to enter professions and blue-collar fields in which they had not traditionally worked, to obtain birth control information and to receive equal pay.
Indeed, abortion was not always this hot an issue. Reading history shows that abortion has been legal for much of the nation’s 200 years. Historians around the country have been drafting a brief for the upcoming Supreme Court case in which they point out that abortion was a known and legal practice when the Constitution was written. It remained a common and highly visible practice well into the 19th Century. Those laws that did seek to regulate it did so to protect pregnant women from the dangerous abortion techniques of the time.
Doctors were the leading force seeking regulation in the middle of the 19th Century. They wanted to control medical practice by keeping out midwives and abortionists. Other groups, reacting to the growing women’s rights movement in the late 19th Century, sought to restrict abortion to keep women at home bearing children, the historians say; still others feared too many Protestants were using abortion and therefore white Anglo-Saxon families would be outnumbered by immigrants with large families. Only in recent decades has concern with killingfetuses become the focal point of abortion arguments.
That is obviously the concern voiced by Operation Rescue. Its followers must be allowed to demonstrate, even to place their ugly signs in the hands of children, as long as they are willing to pay the law’s price for their violations. In this regard, local police generally acted with restraint last week in the face of hundreds of demonstrators who wanted to be arrested but refused to cooperate during the procedure. Charging leader Randall Terry with conspiracy to commit a crime was, however, an excessive restriction on free speech.
The long line that traces the progress of women’s rights since the earliest days of the Republic is a line that inches ever upward despite the tactics of desperate opponents. It does so because of those women and men who repeatedly stand up for what they believe, as pro-choice advocates did this past week. As the poet Adrienne Rich has written, women knew early on that their efforts for equality would not be a simple walk across an open field.