Democracy Under Assault
Theopolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right

Michele Swenson

Forgotten History: 'Original Intent' Supports Abortion Right

History has been the first casualty of contemporary culture wars. Revisionist history that portrays abortion as a recent historical phenomenon, obscures the fact that abortion was legal at the time the Constitution was drafted - a time when eighteenth century cookbooks commonly contained recipes for abortifacients. The Ninth Amendment protects all rights existing at that time. Therefore, "original intent," alone, should trump attempts to deny women access to reproductive health care.

Abortion was legal in America until 1869, when the nascent medical society lobbied to criminalize abortion except as a doctor’s decision—in part to eliminate competition from midwives, who provided most reproductive health care at the time. The Catholic Church accepted abortion until "quickening." The church also reversed its position in 1869, motivated partly by demographic concerns about declining church numbers at a time of increasing knowledge and practice of birth control.

Paul Weyrich’s choice of abortion as the first political litmus test in the ‘70s was calculated to unify conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants as a voting block. "If you have to choose between new life and existing life...choose new life," admonished Weyrich: Women have had an opportunity to live, and should step aside to "make way for new life." It is a mark of the reactionary resistance to women’s equality that Fourteenth Amendment equal protection is demanded for fetuses, and denounced for women as "reading feminism into the Constitution." As a nurse in pre-Roe America, I saw women die from pregnancies contraindicated due to preexisting health conditions, such as heart and kidney disease. Among the greatest conceits of the political right is denial that pregnancy is a women’s health issue, and that women’s lives merit protection.

Abortion wars further obscure the history of extensive black market adoption in pre-Roe America that saw white babies stolen, bought and sold like commodities. Rickie Solinger chronicled this epoch (Wake Up, Little Susie), when charges of "abandonment" were brought against Black women attempting to place less coveted babies for adoption. Birth certificates of Indian babies abducted from reservations were falsified, identifying them as "caucasian" for easy assimilation into the baby trade market. Since Roe returned most reproductive decisions to women, black market adoption has moved out of the country, to places like Central America and Russia.

With tortured constitutional interpretation, Chuck Colson and others judge Roe v. Wade an infringement of states’ rights to legislate "traditional religious morality." By Colson’s account, Christians are deprived of democratic participation because they are "not free to force their...religious convictions" on others. Legal interpretation is further turned on its head by characterization of women’s right to clinic access as violation of opponents’ "free speech" right to blockade clinics.

As if parental/spousal notification and enforced waiting periods are not sufficient obstacles to women’s health care (not to mention the ironically misnamed "right-to-know" laws conflicting with "gag rules"), fundamentalists encourage pharmacists’ refusal to fill prescriptions based on personal religious beliefs. Politically-correct opposition extends to condom access, emergency contraception, and AIDS treatment. Objections have even been raised to a new vaccine to prevent human papilloma virus, the cause of most cervical cancer, the second leading cancer killer of women. Denial of treatment serves as harsh condemnation of "sexual sinners" by biblical literalists. Their broader agenda is sweeping application of their religious litmus test to all health care, including contraception. "Contraception is murder because it prevents the sperm from meeting the egg," declared right-to-life activist Nellie Gray in the ‘70s.

Ultraconservatives’ rewrite of the Constitution ultimately seeks reversal of the right to privacy defined in the 1965 Griswold decision—a right "made up of judicial whole cloth," declared Pat Robertson. "I want to see it abolished." His is just one more effort to rewrite history and the Constitution.

An honest review of history reveals the wider intent of contemporary wedge issue politics - to marginalize and brand women "murderers," gays "pedophiles" and immigrants "criminals."