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Gore Must Challenge Bush on Abortion Issue

September 29, 2000|ALEXANDER C. SANGER | Alexander C. Sanger was president of Planned Parenthood of New York City from 1991 through 1999. He is the grandson of Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood in 1916

I keep hearing, from Republicans and other George W. Bush supporters who support abortion rights, three myths that had better be debunked before election day or a woman's right to choose as now upheld by Roe vs. Wade will be lost.

* Myth No. 1: that Bush is secretly pro-choice, that he won't do anything seriously damaging to choice, that he'll play along with the religious right just enough to keep them quiet.

* Myth No. 2: that the U.S. Supreme Court is safe for Roe vs. Wade. After all, didn't the pro-choice side just win the impossible-to-win so-called "partial-birth abortion" case in the high court?

* Myth No. 3: that technology has solved the abortion problem, i.e., that because we now have approval in the United States to use mifepristone, also known as RU-486, the French pill that makes abortion truly private, this issue will be out of the public and governmental arena.

There is an element of truth to all these myths. Take the first one: I had dinner with people very close to Bush recently, and they protested for more than an hour that he was "OK" on this issue, as was his father. Sure, George W. will concentrate on reducing teen pregnancy and promote abstinence, but who could object to that? they asked.

When I mentioned that his father had tried to enforce a gag rule on what advice doctors could give to women in federally funded clinics and had appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, they responded that the Bush women wouldn't allow such things to happen again. Maybe not.

But where were the Bush women when Bush pere nominated Justice Thomas, who could be on the court for another quarter-century or so?

Which brings us to Myth No. 2. The truth is, the Supreme Court is far from safe for Roe vs. Wade. Three justices--Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist--favor overturning the decision. Anthony M. Kennedy would go along with a partial repeal of it. So all it would take is the replacement of two of the five justices who now support Roe, three of whom are frail or have a medical problem. Bush has stated that he would not have a litmus test for Supreme Court appointments. Can we believe that?

Finally, mifepristone--now approved for use in the United States--it will revolutionize abortion rights for many women. Note the qualifiers: "eventually" and "many." Not all women will opt for this kind of pill. In France, 60% don't after 10 years on the market. In England, closer to 90% don't.

I predict the U.S. will resemble England after 10 years. That means an overwhelming majority of women needing abortions will still need surgery in public or private clinics, facing the same obstacles, financing problems and harassment as they do now. The government's support for, or opposition to, this medical service will still very much be an issue for individual women, especially the poor, the young and the disenfranchised. And remember, Bush opposes RU-486. Would we be surprised if he appointed a Federal Drug Administration commissioner who promotes imposing difficult restrictions on getting the drug?

The saddest part is how little this is being debated this election season, and the blame for that lies squarely at Al Gore's feet. Bush is not going to raise the issue. Right now, he has people simultaneously believing he is pro-life and pro-choice--what better way to win office?

It's up to Gore. He needs to paint Bush as the captive of the religious right. He needs to make the issue real for voters. Then perhaps pro-choice moderates and conservatives may realize what's at stake.

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