President Clinton is moving quickly and with compassion to dismantle the many legal barriers that have prevented so many American women from exercising their constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy. He must now move with equal determination to guarantee access to abortion services in fact.
Last week the White House announced that Clinton will propose ending the 16-year-old ban on federal funding for abortions. Clinton's budget documents, which will be submitted to Congress next month, will not contain the so-called Hyde Amendment, which since 1977 has prohibited poor women from obtaining abortions with federal Medicaid funds. In 1981, Congress specifically eliminated federal funding for abortions for poor women even when their pregnancies resulted from rape or incest. Today, federal funds are available only for abortions necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman and only a handful of states use state revenues to fund medically necessary abortions for poor women. These patently unfair rules have barred poor women from the same medical care permitted to women with means, simply on the basis of income.
The White House announcement on the Hyde Amendment comes on the heels of a series of actions the President has taken to reverse the erosion of Roe vs. Wade guarantees. Clinton did away, for example, with Reagan and Bush Administration executive orders that banned abortion counseling in federally funded clinics, fetal tissue research and abortions at military hospitals.
The abortion-rights majority in Congress is clearly drawing courage from Clinton's determination. The House recently approved legislation allowing federal funding for family planning. A House committee last month approved a bill that would penalize people who blockade abortion clinics. And the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify a woman's right to obtain an abortion, is pending in Congress as well.
But Congress is finding its legs on this issue very late. The hostile climate that has so long prevailed in Washington toward women on the question of reproductive rights has taken a heavy toll. In many states, family planning services--which if more readily available could curb the need for the last resort of abortion--have dwindled due to deliberate budget cuts. Abortion services are now all but nonexistent. There is just one clinic that performs abortions in the whole of North Dakota. Many other states have few more. Only about 12% of American medical schools now routinely teach residents how to perform abortions, down from 22.6 % in 1986. Nearly a third offer no training in the procedure. Many physicians who do continue to offer abortions are now practicing behind bulletproof windows, fearing violence and intimidation from anti-abortion extremists. Doctors at one North Carolina clinic will soon be wearing bulletproof vests as well.
Unambiguous reaffirmations of the right to abortion from Washington alone will not reverse the dwindling number of clinics and trained personnel. Nor will legislation. What is truly at issue--in Washington, and in small towns and big cities across the country--is choice, not coercion. The choice to have a child. Or the choice not to have one.