Tough Roe to Hoe | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Tough Roe to Hoe 

Who will fight the next battle for choice?

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
Illustration by Hadley Hooper

ELENA*, SPEAKING JUST FOR HERSELF, WOULD never have an abortion. "If you do that," says the 18-year-old freshman at Cal State L.A., "you have to live the rest of your life knowing that you killed another human being. And I could not live like that." Even if the fetus had an abnormality, "It is still a human being." Even if she were raped, "It would still be my child." Elena is unsympathetic to the friends and family members who have had abortions, as well as to the "five or six girls" who were pregnant in her high school last year. "If you are smart enough to go ahead and have sex," she says, "you should be responsible for the consequences."

Elena comes from a strict Catholic family in inner-city Los Angeles (she recently graduated from Locke High School). And while she is perhaps more exacting in the standards she sets for herself than her middle-class, less devout peers, she is just like them in another: Theoretically speaking, Elena still believes abortion should be kept legal. "But I would never protest to keep it that way," she says, "because I don't worry about getting pregnant. Right now I am totally not having sex."

Over at Beverly Hills High School, 14-year-old Lauren justifies her pro-choice position by saying that "If the baby has Tay-Sachs, it should not have to suffer." Gina, her 15-year-old classmate, asserts that "If a girl just broke up with her boyfriend or something, then I think she should put the baby up for adoption, but if the baby has Downs syndrome, abortion is okay." (Still, Gina acknowledges, "If I got pregnant right now, it would ruin my life.") Hannah, 17, who is "half and half" on abortion and thinks she might have an abortion herself were she to get pregnant before she's "married and stable" (at 26, according to her life plan), wonders whether reproductive choice is just making it easier for kids to be promiscuous. "If there is nowhere to go for an abortion," she speculates, "maybe kids wouldn't consider having sex."

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Hearing from these girls, all of whom believe that abortion should continue to be safe and legal, and none willing to fight to keep it that way, I'm reminded of women my own age, in their 40s and older, who cleared adolescence within the decade that women won the right to determine their own reproductive futures. As with these high school girls, women at the end of their childbearing years often say they believe in a woman's right to choose, yet would be hard pressed to devote their activism to that cause. "I let my NARAL membership expire," one 40-year-old friend confided to me on the day the Los Angeles Times featured a front-page story on the efforts of fundamentalist Christians to have embryos declared persons. "It just seems to me that there are so many other things." It's true: I write my Planned Parenthood check perfunctorily now, remembering the people who treated me with respect and patience when I was a 21-year-old acting student living in a New York residential hotel, six weeks pregnant and desperate not to be. There is more urgency in my contributions to the Sierra Club, or Doctors Without Borders, or Amnesty International. We march against any impending war, but we do not stand in front of abortion clinics to protect the women inside. Political activism is often borne of as much self-centered fear as fundamentalism.

And yet the movement still needs us, because the holy war on reproductive choice is in full swing: Bush has chosen Dr. David Hager to head up the FDA's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs, even though Hager refuses to prescribe contraceptives to his married patients, and opposes not just abortion but emergency contraception (EC), a large dose of hormones that can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex (EC is not to be confused with RU 486, or mifepristone, which is a chemically induced terminating of an actual pregnancy). The slyly named "Abortion Non-Discrimination Act" currently sits before the Senate (having passed the House in September), expertly crafted for the purpose of eliminating the last provision of the 1977 Hyde amendment, which ended federal funding for all abortions except in the case of rape or grave danger to the woman's life. (Under the new bill, publicly funded health-care providers can refuse to perform an abortion no matter what the circumstances, on the grounds that such refusal is a matter of conscience.)

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that keeps track of such things, 36 percent of California's counties are without an abortion provider, and California is progressive — the nationwide percentage is 87. The man who governs our country declares a "Sanctity of Life Day" even while he threatens a war. And while two-thirds of the electorate nationwide has remained consistently pro-choice over the decades, I wonder if that fortress will hold through all the chipping away when the barely balanced Supreme Court reaches the issue's exposed core: Roe v. Wade itself.

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