Who decides: women or the government?

Who decides? Women or the government? That’s the question. Who gets to make the choice for a woman whether she has a child or not? Should we allow politicians to decide these most private matters and, in the process, to slowly but surely strip us of our freedoms?

These are the questions at issue this week in three courtrooms across the country where reproductive rights activists and physicians are arguing against the first federal ban on a safe abortion procedure since a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy was protected by Roe v. Wade more than three decades ago.

So-called partial-birth abortion, used infrequently, is actually the safest procedure available for women in the second trimester. The ban is just one aspect of the Bush administration’s efforts to turn back the clock on women’s reproductive rights. It lacks any exception for a woman’s health, which in and of itself makes it unconstitutional.

In the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, “We therefore conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision.” George W. Bush and his cronies have created what NARAL Pro-Choice America calls “the most hostile political environment to women’s reproductive liberty since Justice Blackmun wrote these words.” And they’re just getting started.

Add to the partial birth law the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), the Child Custody Protection Act, the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, (what spin doctors came up with those names?), and two separate measures aimed at the FDA-approved drug, RU 486.

Then there’s Attorney General John Ashcroft’s declaration that “individuals no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential.” Was that a chill that just went up your spine?

On March 25, the Senate passed the UVVA, the first federal legislation giving legal rights to a fetus or embryo.

“This legislation is another underhanded attempt to roll back women’s rights,” National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy said in a statement. “Giving a fetus at any stage of development the same legal rights as the pregnant woman will undermine the right to abortion as guaranteed under Roe v. Wade.”

Under UVVA, authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, charged 28-year-old Melissa Ann Rowland with the murder of one of her twins, who was stillborn. Rowland, who has a history of mental illness, was advised by doctors to have a Caesarean section, but she refused, having experienced the invasive procedure in two prior deliveries.

She did eventually have the C-section, but is being prosecuted because she didn’t have it early enough – on the theory that the stillborn twin might have survived if she had delivered earlier. One day after the operation, she was jailed on endangerment charges because drugs were reported to be in the system of the surviving twin.

“Our legal system recognizes every person’s right to bodily integrity and the right to make your own medical decisions ... yet Utah is prosecuting a woman for murder because she delayed having a Caesarean section! Where will the prenatal police be stationed?” Gandy asked. “Will women be prosecuted for taking their own life-saving medications because those drugs might harm the fetus? Where will it stop?”

Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said, “Supporters argue that this would deter violence against pregnant women, but we know that they are not serious because the Senate rejected an amendment that would have bolstered programs to do just that.”

Anti-choice lawmakers even admit the deception. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has stated, “They say it undermines abortion rights. It does. But that’s irrelevant.” To whom?

President Bush has already used his power to chip away at women’s right to choose and right to privacy. If he is re-elected, he will almost certainly get to nominate one or more anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court, enough to overturn Roe v. Wade.

As NARAL Pro-Choice America warns, “Every woman will feel the consequences of Election 2004.” If every woman feels it, every family will feel it.

“Don’t let the right wing send us back to the days when countless women died from illegal abortions,” NARAL declares. That’s good advice.

The March for Women’s Lives April 25 in Washington, D.C., will be one of the most important events in the history of women’s rights. You can’t afford not to be there.

Carolyn Rummel is a member of the PWW editorial board and can be reached at crummel@pww.org.