COLUMN LEFT / RUTH ROSEN : Will Congress Leave Women in the Lurch? : If the Democrats put the Freedom of Choice Act to a vote before the election, they will earn the voters’ trust.

<i> Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, writes regularly on political culture</i>

At a press conference on Dec. 12, 1988, President Bush expressed this strong conviction: “Well, it appear (sic) to be a double standard to some, but I--that’s my position, and it’s--we don’t have the time to philosophically discuss it here, but . . . we’re going to opt on the side of life. And that is--that is the--that really is the underlying part of this for me. You know, I mentioned--and with really from the heart--this concept of going across the river to this little church and watching one of our children--adopted kid--be baptized. And that made for me--and it was very emotional for me. It helped me in reaching a very personal view of this question. And I don’t know.”

Now we can see what he meant. When asked how they would handle the hypothetical case of a child’s pregnancy, both President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle revealed that Roe vs. Wade would rule in their homes. As the President said, “Who else can make the choice?” But the privilege of choice is apparently reserved for the female relatives of men in high places. For even as they spoke, the Republican National Platform Committee reaffirmed their party’s absolute opposition to abortion--even in the case of incest and rape--and their intention to outlaw it through a constitutional amendment.

Such rank hypocrisy must not stand. The Democrats have a rare opportunity to demonstrate the class privilege behind the Republicans’ unprincipled opposition to abortion. It is not for any old life that they are pro; it is the life of the soon-to-be well-born.


But the Democrats, instead of seizing the moment, are dithering over whether to put the Freedom of Choice Act to a vote. They worry that opponents will burden it with amendments. I say let every member of Congress be counted, now, before the election. At their convention, the Democrats vowed to protect women’s reproductive choices. Now they have an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment. Even if they cannot muster the votes to override President Bush’s expected veto, Democrats should go on record, before the election, to prove their credibility and earn voters’ trust.

This is vital legislation. The Supreme Court’s Casey decision permits states to place undue burdens on rural, poor and young women, many of whom now find abortion inaccessible. It is only a matter of time before more court decisions whittle away the reproductive freedoms of women.

There is more at stake than women’s safety and freedom, though one might think that reason enough. Every day brings fresh evidence that the politics of abortion hobbles medical research and clinical practice. President Bush’s anti-abortion stand, for example, restricts the use of fetal tissue for research for Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses. Politics, not scientific judgment, influenced the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the French drug RU486. In a shocking breach of freedom of speech, the Bush Administration gagged family planners and outlawed their right to discuss abortion with patients at federally funded clinics.

The Freedom of Choice Act won’t stop the raging debate over abortion. Nor will it keep states from passing laws regulating minors’ access or public funding of abortions. But it will settle one of the most bitter controversies in American politics. If passed, it will take abortion out of the hands of the Supreme Court, codify the principles set forth by Roe vs. Wade in 1973 and ensure for all American women, not just the relatives of privileged Republicans, the right to choose an abortion.

Democrats have, to put it politely, an unimpressive record when it comes to protecting women’s rights. Now is the time for them to find the courage they couldn’t summon when they confirmed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Before the November election, they must pass the Freedom of Choice Act. Those who stall or sabotage the bill will not be able to hide, and they will face a political revenge that they richly deserve.