A Test of Our Resolve: The Religious Right's Attack on Freedom

By Baird, William Britton; Scott, Joni | The Humanist, September 2000 | Go to article overview

A Test of Our Resolve: The Religious Right's Attack on Freedom


Baird, William Britton, Scott, Joni, The Humanist


Though the majority of Americans remain to some degree pro-choice, the size and resolve of that majority has experienced a rapid decline over the past decade.

In a Los Angeles Times poll of 2,071 people conducted in June 2000, only 43 percent of the respondents expressed specific support for Roe v. Wade, compared to 56 percent in 1991. Reuters News Service, in reporting the story, stated:

   U.S. public support for Roe v. Wade has fallen in recent years ... the
   poll's findings appeared contradictory but quoted a researcher as saying
   that while Americans personally dislike abortion they believed in allowing
   people to make their own individual choices.

Also in June, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Stenberg v. Carhart late-term abortion case maintained a woman's right to choose by a hairline five-to-four margin and featured an uncommon and emotional reading from the bench of the dissenting opinions. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has declared, "I support a Human Life Amendment," a position that is part of the GOP platform. This can only mean that, if elected, Bush will work to establish in law that personhood exists at conception and, therefore, that abortion, along with methods of birth control that work as abortifacients--such as IUDs and mini-pills--must be criminalized.

How matters have come to this pass can be attributed to a number of factors. One of the most significant is that we live in a time when an entire generation has been spared the grim reality of illegal abortion. Today the public rarely encounters the horror stories of earlier years. Indeed, young people observing an abortion rights rally for the first time have been known to ask what the symbol of the coathanger means. And college students continue to be amazed when I tell the story of how, in 1963, while coordinating research as clinical director of EMKO Pharmaceuticals at a New York City hospital, I witnessed the death of a single mother of nine children; she had a coathanger imbedded in her uterus from a botched attempt to abort herself. That incident became a defining moment for me, marking the beginning of my abortion rights activism--specifically, my opening of the first U.S. abortion clinic in 1964.

Today, anti-abortion crusaders try to claim that the shocking statistics of the women who died at the hands of quack and back-alley abortionists are made up--that events like these never happened! But we who saw the suffering on a daily basis remember what it was like: women coming to us by the thousands with stories of coathangers and knitting needles, of douching bags filled with Lysol, bleach, and turpentine. Even one of today's leading anti-abortion activists remembers. Bernard Nathanson, M.D., a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League but now a convert to Roman Catholicism and a staunch opponent of abortion, writes in his 1996 autobiography, The Hand of God:

   At least two-thirds of the clinic females ambulanced to our emergency room
   in the middle of the night, bleeding profusely and in severe pain, were the
   victims of botched illegal abortions, not spontaneous miscarriages....
   Those of us practicing gynecology no longer see the results of illegal
   induced abortion: the raging fevers; the torn and obstructed intestines;
   the shredded uterus requiring immediate hysterectomy; the raging infections
   leaving many women sterile, exhausted, in chronic pain.

He concludes, "Illegal abortion was in 1967 the number one killer of pregnant women."

Another factor accounting for the dwindling support for abortion rights is the superior organization of the anti-abortion movement and the undying vigilance of its activists. Back in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was handed down, I warned that the legalization of abortion would create a backlash where opposition forces would mobilize to fight for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. …

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