All wars are intimate. For women whose bodies have become battlegrounds in the struggle for reproductive freedom, the intimacy is profound. In the U.S. where the rise of the fundamentalist right has resulted in extensive attempts at creative new restrictions on women’s rights to Moscow, where an American style anti-choice movement has emerged, the struggle goes on. The womb is the ultimate theater of war and all women are potential casualties.
Being on the front lines of this generational struggle has been a challenge, a privilege and a gift. In my upcoming memoir Intimate Wars, I address the total war against women that started after the attacks of 9/11. Below is an excerpt.
“Welcome to my world.” My words were published in the New York Post on October 17, 2001, just a little over a month after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It was a controversial statement, but it was the truth. Envelopes filled with anthrax were sent to television stations and five U.S. senators had instigated national panic, but I was used to checking my mail for white powder every day. Grand Central Station was threatened with a bomb, but I’d been looking under my car for signs of foul play, my heart beating quickly in anticipation of an explosion, for a decade by then. I’d been avoiding windows for fear of bullets since Bernard Slepian was gunned down at his kitchen window in front of his wife and child in 1998. I tensed my body every time I walked from my car to Choices.
The attacks of 9/11 provided an ideal context for Bush to lead his holy crusade as the god-ordained protector of American citizens, born and unborn. All Americans were awash in a sea of righteous patriotism. This was not the time for questioning or opposition to a “war president.” It was the perfect environment for Bush to attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to enact a deeply conservative reproductive and sexual agenda with the ultimate goal of banning abortion.
On January 22, 2001, the twenty-eighth anniversary of Roe v. Wade and President George W. Bush’s first full day in office, he reinstated the draconian “gag” rule, restricting funding for international family planning and denying medical information on abortion to poor women treated at federally funded clinics. The Bush administration’s opening salvo made it perfectly clear that the U.S. was going to use its enormous power and prestige to tell the world in no uncertain terms that girls’ and women’s lives were not important.
In the wake of 9/11, Bush followed his first act as president by withholding $34 million in funding for women’s health care from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Then the United States became the only developed nation not to ratify the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Against all fact-based anecdotal and experiential information, the administration insisted that knowledge about sex encouraged promiscuity, mandating abstinence-only programs in schools. The administration limited vital information about birth control, even removing literature about condom effectiveness from the Department of Health and Human Services’ website. Instead, they used the space to spread misinformation about abortion causing breast cancer and depression.
This was followed by a series of vastly restrictive acts: the charter of the HHS Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protection granted status as “human subjects” to embryos for the first time; the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation allowing health care entities to discriminate against any provider who even offered information about abortion; the president appointed anti-choice extremists to key FDA committees and to oversee Title X; and Congress prohibited the more than one hundred thousand women serving in the military and living on American bases overseas from obtaining abortion services in overseas military hospitals, even with their own money (to which Choices responded by offering abortions to military women at a reduced rate).
It was clear that the face of the war was changing once again. The combatants remained the same, but the nature of the attacks against women expanded into new territory. The Clinton era had seen a guerrilla war waged against abortion rights, with antis swarming abortion clinics, killing doctors, making overt threats, and ambushing patients on the streets. They had also begun chipping away at abortion rights incrementally with legislation and lawsuits in multiple states. These attacks were effective to a certain extent, but the antis lacked the main prize — the bully pulpit. When George W. Bush took office, they won that, too. The antis no longer felt disenfranchised or alienated; now, the re-criminalization of abortion was much closer on the horizon. They leveraged their new support in the White House to help Bush fight what could only be described as a total war against reproductive freedom.
Women of the United States began falling prey to the quiet, carefully planned “stealth strategy” that characterized the Bush era. Realizing that the goal of overturning Roe remained elusive, the antis focused on achieving that same end by making it very difficult, and in some states almost impossible, to provide the procedure. The strategy had its roots in the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which declared for the first time that states had authority to regulate abortion clinics performing first trimester abortions (as opposed to only regulating those who provided second trimester abortions), as long as they didn’t place an “undue burden” on women’s access to abortions. The vague language of the ruling left states open to the antis’ creative applications. They found ways to create small hurdles for clinics to climb if they wanted to stay in operation. Relatively benign on their own, these little obstacles piled up, making it more and more difficult for clinics to offer services. The goal was to create an environment where, in the words of one anti-choice leader, “abortion may indeed be perfectly legal, but no one can get one.”
Their strategy was effective. Between 1995 and 2003, approximately 350 anti-choice measures were enacted, protecting pharmacists who refused to fill birth control prescriptions on moral or religious grounds, preventing physicians from performing most abortions, requiring state-controlled counseling and waiting periods for abortion, and mandating parental involvement in minors’ abortions. There was also a rise in bogus malpractice cases brought against providers claiming that women were “coerced” into having abortions, and that many women didn’t know they were actually “killing their babies.” Most cases were dismissed or withdrawn, but each time a doctor was accused of malpractice, the ensuing legal fees and damage to the clinic’s reputation did almost as much harm as if the cases had gone to trial.
One of the most maddening aspects of the stealth strategy was that it was conducted in the name of “women’s health” in order to garner public support. Stricter regulations for clinics and laws mandating ‘unbiased” counseling were characterized as protections for women. The antis had found a new defense against accusations that they valued the fetus’s life more than the mother’s: turning the argument back on its head, they retorted that the mother and fetus had a sacred bond, and in honoring the “baby,” they were also honoring the mother. They were slapping a women’s rights label on fetal rights so that they could proclaim themselves women’s rights activists, co-opting the language of feminism and thus pushing even more Americans to the anti-choice side of the reproductive rights continuum. Now, you could be “pro-life” and a feminist, too.
But the right to reproductive freedom is as fundamental as the right not to be a slave. When birth control finally became available in all its forms, women’s rights activists and feminists said that women were no longer slaves to their biology, that pregnancy would no longer be the guiding and primary directing principal of their lives. The legalization of abortion went even further toward freeing women from this constriction. In a sense it was a complete negation of the Freudian principle that “biology is destiny.” But the ruling meant to uphold this right was full of holes inflicted state by state, its strength leaking out the sides. Now “geography was destiny.”
Two days after the 9/11 attack I drove down to a site where I could smell the charred remains of the towers and see the black, dripping steel rising high from the smoldering ground. Already the hawkers with their souvenirs camped out on the sidewalks. Looking into the dazed faces around me, I sensed that we all shared the same reality. In the stores, on the trains, on the streets, everyone had a sense of connectedness that I had never experienced before. We were in a war zone and we had no idea what might be coming next. The immediate shock and fear of another attack was slowly replaced by searing grief, anger, and rage.
“How could this have happened?” I never asked that question. My body and mind were used to living in a constant state of functional anxiety, and as I absorbed this blow like the others that had come before, I wondered at myself for not reacting with more emotion.
Merle Hoffman is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of On The Issues Magazine. She is the Founder, President and CEO of CHOICES Women’s Medical Center. She is the author of an upcoming book, Intimate Wars: The Life and Times of the Woman Who Brought Abortion from the Back Alley to the Board Room from The Feminist Press.