Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women, gave one of the most compelling testimonies of her long career before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon. She was pleading -- you might say begging -- for the men on that committee to understand the impact of abortion rights on women's lives.
What she got in return for her eloquence was a patronizing lecture from Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who was more concerned with senatorial courtesy than the fact that women will die if abortion -- until 1973 the leading cause of maternal death -- is made illegal again.
The confirmation hearings for David H. Souter were a striking display of how outdated the make-up of both the Senate and the Supreme Court have become. Despite the enormous implications this court nomination has for women's health, women have had no say in the matter on the Judiciary Committee or in the White House.
Nowhere in the entire power structure that influenced the selection of the nominee were there any women or blacks, the two groups struggling to become full partners in this society and whose progress has been most severely set back by the Supreme Court in the last three years. What we are witnessing here is a patriarchal power structure protecting itself -- but perhaps for the last time.
Political savants are reading the results of the primaries as the beginnings of a nationwide rebellion against entrenched power structures. They cite Sharon Pratt Dixon's upset victory in the Democratic mayoral primary in the District. Her clean-house theme was successfully echoed in Massachusetts by Boston University President John Silber, who won the Democratic gubernatorial race. In Oklahoma, voters approved a constitutional amendment to limit the service of state legislatures to 12 years. Similar measures have been proposed in more than a dozen other states and both conservative and women's organizations have shown keen interest in efforts to limit terms of members of Congress, who enjoy a 98 percent reelection rate.
Signs of extreme voter unrest are all around us. And no one should overlook the fact that more than half of all voters are women, and women are running and holding office now more than any time since they won the right to vote 70 years ago. "I think there's a sense that it's been in the hands of men now for so long, and it's sort of a mess," is the way Dixon has put it. "Give women a chance."
It is no coincidence that opposition to Souter stems from uncertainty over his beliefs about the rights to individual privacy and about civil rights. For these are the two areas of law that have done so much to emancipate women and blacks, both of whom are threatening the power structure as never before. Reproductive rights, particularly, go to the very core of a woman's ability to control her own destiny. In his testimony, Souter made it clear that he believes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion across the country, is open for reconsideration.
"When abortion became legal in our country in 1973," said Yard, testifying against his nomination, "women in the United States became free because they could now control their reproductive lives. If one cannot decide for herself when or whether to have children, she surely has no freedom -- no freedom to control her life, to plan her life, to decide what to do with her life. Any goal she sets can be completely disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy, and if she cannot end it, then her life is being controlled, not by herself but by some law enacted by men which forces her to carry the pregnancy to term, and then be responsible for the child borne, whether or not she has the emotional or financial resources to bear that burden.
"For l7 years women have had this freedom, but by your consideration of David Souter for appointment to the Supreme Court, you are really considering ending freedom for women in this country. We believe from Judge Souter's record that he will be the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade." Further, she said, NOW was troubled by his testimony about cases that legalized birth control.
The American Association of University Women, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, and the National Abortion Rights Action League have all opposed the Souter nomination on similar grounds.
All the polls are showing that the American people consider birth control and abortion as matters of right, prompting antiabortion politicians across the land to scurry for a middle ground. The country is far, far ahead of the politicians on civil rights and on women's rights. And the country is showing all the signs of being ready to rock the establishment, instead of pleading with it.