NEWS & LETTERS, July-August 2005

Woman as Reason

Our bodies are ours!

by Terry Moon

The shock of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation was not that it came, but that it came so soon. Women reacted immediately because we know that Bush will use her resignation to nominate someone bent on destroying the rights won by women, Blacks, and workers, and making legal abortion a thing of the past. At the National Organization for Women's national conference over the fourth of July weekend, the young feminist taskforce transformed the meeting, holding strategy sessions and a spontaneous march of 700 women to the Tennessee state capital, chanting the familiar: "Not the church! Not the state! Women will decide our fate!" Thereby women are revealing our determination to control our own bodies and minds.


That direct action was a relief from all the emails imploring women to call their congressional representatives. It is those Democrats we're being told to call who have demonstrated how eager they are to downplay abortion rights as they try to appeal to the Republicans' reactionary supporters. Hillary Clinton opportunistically led the way when she declared "respect" for fanatics "who believe with all their heart and conscience that there are no circumstances under which abortion should be available."

O'Connor was seen as someone holding back reaction as she cast the deciding vote that overturned a ban on late-term abortions, banned state-sponsored prayer at high school graduations, preserved narrowly drawn affirmative action at universities, and required the Bush administration to grant hearings to detainees in the so-called fight against terrorism. That's why her resignation is being met by women's groups with phrases like: "Armageddon," "Earthquake in American politics," "Women's lives are at stake," "This is a state of emergency," and "This is it."


But not only were these cases narrowly interpreted by O'Connor, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan as the first woman on the Supreme Court, she was also the swing vote that selected Bush as president over the popular vote of the American people. Her resignation, giving him the opportunity to replace her, was deliberate. NEWSWEEK  reported that on hearing Al Gore announced as the winner, she exclaimed, "This is terrible," and told her husband she would not retire if Gore would be choosing her replacement.

Crowning Bush may be her most heinous act, but not her only one. When in the Arizona Senate, she voted against busing, opposed gun control, and championed the death penalty. On the Supreme Court she voted to strike DOWN federal laws that barred carrying of firearms within 1,000 yards of a school, a provision permitg disabled state employees to sue their bosses for discrimination, and a provision that let rape victims sue their attackers in federal court. On abortion she voted to let hospital personnel refuse to participate in abortions; dissented from a ruling that struck down an Akron, Ohio ordinance that put regulations on abortion, including a required 24-hour waiting period; and voted to uphold abortion restrictions in Pennsylvania and Missouri.


Given O'Connor's conservative agenda, the fondness for her now displayed by some women's organizations and liberals is a measure of how retrogressive the times are; that, and the fact that every nominee on Bush's short list to replace her is a diehard retrogressionist on women's rights, affirmative action, environmental concerns, and workers' rights. There is no question that, with her gone, things will get much worse.

What we in the movement have to face is how women's organizations have compromised their principles and are thus partly responsible for the place we now find ourselves. That compromising is reaching new heights as the word "abortion" disappears from our vocabulary, as groups try to downplay abortion rights and emphasize instead that anti-abortion fanatics are also anti-birth control fanatics. The crucial demand for abortion rights has often been criticized as too narrow, as if that demand somehow means that women don't want the right to have children as well. Of course we do. The demand for abortion was never limited to the right to end a pregnancy—and that is one huge reason why it is contested so violently. What we are saying with this decades-long struggle is that no one can tell us what to do with our own bodies. Our bodies are ours! We are saying it is an outrage that any government can tell a woman what to do with her womb, or any part of her body or sexuality. The fight for bodily integrity is, for women, part of what Marx would call our quest for universality, our desire to be whole human beings.

The depth of the retrogression we face is seen in how so many are thinking the most we can demand is that Bush nominate an O'Connor clone. Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority, urges us to insist on "the appointment of a woman at least as centrist as Sandra Day O'Connor." Why should we limit our demand for full freedom and personhood to that!? The women's movement doesn't need to compromise more and more. What's required is the opposite. Now is the time to show that the recent March for Women's Lives that brought out the largest demonstration in U.S. history was only the beginning. It is that kind of force and Reason that is the only thing that will stay Bush's hand and move us towards the kind of total uprooting of this sexist, racist, anti-human, capitalist society that is necessary for the quest for universality to be realized.

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