Two Voices On Abortion
Pro-Choice Chief Cites Self-Determination. The battle between President Bush and Congress over abortion counseling is the latest phase of an intense national debate. For Wanda Franz, the new president of the National Right to Life Committee, the central issue is a baby's right to be born. For Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, it's a woman's right to control her body. In separate Monitor interviews, they describe their attitudes and how they came to them.
'IT was not my grandmother who was refused a toilet in a service station, it was I who was refused a toilet and told to go behind the service station," Faye Wattleton said in her Senate testimony opposing Associate Justice Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination."That is what I was expected to do as a child traveling through the South with my parents." Ms. Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 1978, approaches the battle to preserve abortion rights with the same sense of offense: Just as blacks have suffered at the hands of society simply because of skin color, so have women suffered simply because biology dictates they are the ones who will bear children, she says. Forcing a woman to carry through with an unwanted pregnancy, Wattleton says, denies that woman the ability to control her own body. And although the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling established abortion as a constitutionally guaranteed right, today's more conservative Supreme Court may overturn that ruling. States would, again, have the right to ban abortion. "Frankly, I consider it an affront to women to penalize and treat us as if we don't deserve full respect," Wattleton said in a Monitor interview. "It probably grows out of my own personal background and the social ethic of pride." Wattleton began her career in the pre-Roe days, as a nurse specializing in maternal and infant health. It was while working at Harlem Hospital in New York and as a public health administrator that she saw first-hand what she calls "the tragedies of daily life," of women who suffered from self-inflicted or illegal abortions. After seven years as executive director of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, Wattleton took the helm at national headquarters, which she has turned into one of the country's most vociferous supporters for keeping abortion legal. That identity hasn't completely pleased everyone in the ranks of the 75-year-old Planned Parenthood movement, whose mandate has always been the more broadly phrased "reproductive health care." Wattleton's leading role in the pro-abortion rights movement has also opened Planned Parenthood to the charge from anti-abortion forces that the organization advocates abortion as just another method of birth control. This charge goes to the heart of the maelstrom over impending government regulations that will prohibit discussion of abortion in federally funded family-planning clinics. Last week a majority of Congress voted to overturn the ban on abortion counseling. President Bush vetoed that decision, and Congress fell short of a two-thirds majority to overturn the veto. Thus, in about 90 days, the regulations will go into effect. But the debate over them is hardly over. Advocates of the speech regulations argue that family-planning clinics are for birth control, not abortion. Wattleton argues that you can't separate the two issues. "They are very tightly linked, because either a woman can control her fertility or she can't," she says. "They are linked by physiology, not by my desire. Implicit in that characterization is that somehow contraception is good and abortion is bad. We don't hold such to be the case. We consider unsafe and uninformed practice of any method of fertility control to be unacceptable." A fetus becomes a baby, she says, "when it's born ... when life begins.... [But] I don't think the question is, 'When does life begin?' It's, 'What value do we place on the development of life? Wattleton counters the notion that the abortion issue has divided the country. Rather, she says, "I think that there is a lot of heat, a lot of commotion, because the issue has been so highly politicized and it has been driven by a minority of zealous people who have supporters in high places.... They have had the strategic fortune of having a major political party that has dominated national politics for the last dozen years.... "The broader spectrum of people," she says, "believe the government should stay out of these matters." But the fact is that the government is involved, and increasingly so. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, each state legislature will be allowed to regulate abortion as it sees fit, including an outright ban, as a few have already voted to do. In a post-Roe America, the women who don't have the resources to pay the high price of an illegal abortionist or travel to a state where abortion is legal "will be the first ones to die," says Wattleton. The nation's conflict over the abortion issue flows in part from the issue of sex and the role of sexuality, Wattleton says. More to the point, she continues, is the role and value of women in society. She cites a "misperception that we have sometimes allowed ourselves," that women have gained a position of social equality. "In a very fundamental sense we still are held to the responsibilities and obligations of child-bearing and child-rearing as our proper and dutiful role," she says. "To give women power over their lives is a very real and significant threat to a lot of people. "You know," she continues, her cool exterior softening a bit, "I would find it much more interesting to talk about how to develop new forms of birth control, how do we develop new curricula for sex education, how do we work to get parents doing a better job of educating their children about sexuality. "Those are far more interesting subjects to me than politics - namely because I don't think these are political issues. You cannot politically make a parent do what they're supposed to do, in the interests of their children's well-being. "You have to, through a course of work in society, change the environment and change the thinking. That's much more positive and intelligent than to debate what law will be enforced. d like to be working for something, not against something. But that doesn't mean I'm in any way prepared to walk away from it."