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Embattled Roe v. Wade Turns 40 Today/An Interview with NOW President Terry O'Neill

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And, in fact, one of the criticisms of the case, in later years, was "Hey, the political process was already taken care of, decriminalizing abortion. The Supreme Court really overstepped its bounds or shouldn't have decided the case as a matter of fundamental constitutional rights." I mean, obviously, I disagree with that. I think the court did the right thing, in Roe v. Wade.

But there was just an enormous groundswell from the public, and it was not just women, you know. Men who care about their wives' and their girlfriends' health care were very supportive of decriminalizing abortion. They saw what happened. I've heard so many stories and read memoirs of women whose husbands or boyfriends were with them every step of the way, trying to find someone who would perform the pregnancy termination; terrified that they had gotten someone who was not going to perform a safe and medically appropriate procedure, and so men were with the women, in very large numbers, back then. And, by the way, it is still true today.

So there was all of this political movement, and the challenge to the extremely harsh law in Texas came up through the courts, and eventually ended at the Supreme Court. And that was the Roe v. Wade case and Justice [Harry] Blackmun wrote, in what was really a brilliant decision, saying that women's health care includes abortion, period. And health care is a private matter, and sex is a private matter, and sexuality is a private matter. How the woman got pregnant, and what she does once she does get pregnant, the kinds of decisions that she needs to make once she's pregnant, those are only for her to decide, under our constitutional law. That was clearly the right ruling. And that's what happened.

Almost immediately, right-wing lawmakers began trying to undo the Roe v Wade decision. Henry Hyde, a Catholic lawmaker from Illinois, was able to push through what we now call the Hyde Amendment. It has to be passed every single year. It's an add-on to an appropriations measure. And the Hyde Amendment basically prohibits Medicaid from funding abortions for low-income women who are otherwise eligible for health care through Medicaid.

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The Hyde Amendment has been expanded to include that the military cannot pay for women -- for service women or women dependents of service members -- to have abortions that, even the Peace Corps is not allowed to make abortions available to Peace Corps volunteers. And that includes when they are in countries where safe, legal procedures are not available.

Henry Hyde, himself, was quoted as saying: Look, I would like to make abortion unavailable to rich women, and middle-class women, and poor women, alike, but unfortunately, the only women I can go after are the poor women. I think directly what he said was "Unfortunately, all I have available to me is Medicaid," to go after them. So he really pressed to prevent federal funding for abortion care.

And that has had two, I think, extremely harmful effects. First of all, you can't take one piece of health care, you can't pull out one piece of health care, and think that women will then have all of the other aspects of health care, that they need. We've seen in practice that just doesn't work.  

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What's going on today is in the name of the Hyde Amendment. Right-wing lawmakers are trying to shut down family planning clinics because those clinics refer women to abortion clinics or they perform abortions themselves. So you're shutting down family planning clinics that give birth control, and STD screenings, and mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. So it's really simply not possible to isolate abortion, as the one piece of health care that you are going to deprive women of. The reality is, you go down that road, women start being blocked from reproductive health care, generally.

DB: And just to add on, as Henry Hyde was playing that role in the Congress, he was also collaborating with, really, call them border-line terrorists. One -- I believe his name was Joseph Scheidler [accused of] sort of inspiring the killings of abortion doctors. And Henry Hyde is making sort of campaign stops in the courtroom. They didn't only play it in Congress. When you mess with Scheidler, and I did, because I wrote a book about Henry Hyde, you, for instance, would end up maybe in the cross hairs of his Website as a baby killer; as a mass murderer. So there was this extra-legal operation going on that ultimately cost abortion doctors their lives. Right? This was a part of this struggle.

TO: Absolutely. It hasn't completely stopped but it has been enormously tamped down, and frankly, that's partly because of my own organization, and other women's organizations too. When, as you said, these over-zealous advocates against abortion rights... their inflammatory language, their announcement that anyone who supports abortion rights is a baby killer, and deserves to be killed themselves.

That kind of inflammatory language, as somebody once said, falls on the ears of the hinged and the unhinged alike. And it sets the stage for murdering abortion providers which absolutely happened in the 1980s and the 1990s. It was a terrible time. And the National Organization for Women brought a RICO -- that's a racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations act -- lawsuit against Joe Scheidler and Randall Terry and others in the violent anti-abortion movement. We set out to prove that they had a whole network, and in fact a corrupt organization that was designed to shut down legitimate health-care providing clinics and that that was against the law. And because they were conspiring together, to shut down legitimate health-care providers, that was a conspiracy under the RICO statutes.

Now, that lawsuit was fascinating and amazing, and the National Organization for Women went to the Supreme Court twice, and won, but the third time we didn't win. But that took 14 or 15 years, and in that time period, we were able to get a nationwide injunction against those men, and the level of violence against abortion clinics dropped like a stone. I mean it was dramatic. The violence has not completely gone away, but it is at a much, much lower level than it was at the height of the extremist activities of Joe Scheidler and Randall Terry.

DB: But, clearly, this still boils under the surface, we saw this in the recent presidential election with the extraordinary statements being made by politicians who are supposed to be taken seriously. That represented a viciousness and, at best, a profound unbelievable ignorance that is ultimately, incredibly dangerous.

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The National Organization for Women is going to be celebrating, commemorating, whatever you want to call it a fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade. A candlelight vigil is going to take place next Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

TO: Right in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. at five o'clock.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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