There are a couple of ironies in the abortion legislation headed for Maryland Gov. William Donald Shaefer's desk: one is that it is a strong abortion-rights bill but one that will make it harder on teenagers who want abortions and the other is that it is men who are leading both sides of the fight.
Women in the legislature have taken a low profile after last year's abortion battle turned into an acrimonious anti-female dispute that whipped up a host of ugly sentiments. Some of the women legislators appear relieved to hand the bill over to the male leadership. As one put it, "If you get the best leaders women's lives are going to be positively affected. You have to weigh it on a larger scale."
Politics, of course, is the art of compromise. But this compromise produces a more pernicious result than appears on the surface. Instead of having women leading the fight for women's right to choose, they are letting the men in the legislature make the rules that govern women's lives. The bill on its way to Schaefer would impose no limitations on early-term abortions for adults but would require doctors to notify parents of minors. There is no penalty for not doing so, and doctors can decide not to notify if they think it would not be in the girl's best interest.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, who has been testifying in legislatures across the country against notification and consent laws, argues that "they ruin real girls' lives." She describes the Maryland notification clause as liberal, but nevertheless one that could provoke physical and emotional chaos in families where parents can't handle finding out that their minor daughter is pregnant. "We are opposed because a lot of doctors would just routinely notify. This is a pro-choice state. The election showed it was a pro-choice state." The notification requirement was added to prevent a filibuster by antiabortion senators.
There is no such requirement now. The overall legislation is an effort by abortion-rights forces to protect abortion rights in Maryland if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade. "The net effect right now is a limitation that is not there now," says Smeal. "So why add one?
"There are no right answers here. It's a matter of men negotiating the rights of women and girls. The citizens have said they want it to be the decision of women. So who gets to vote on this? Men. In Maryland, we have more women than in most typical state legislatures and now the common wisdom is women should be quiet this year so they don't irritate the men. Can you imagine a bunch of women deciding the rights of teenage boys and telling the men you have to be quiet this year?"
Smeal's organization has documented the abortion votes that have taken place so far in state legislatures and found that in overwhelming percentages, both Republican and Democratic women vote for abortion rights. "Of course we feel strongly about this," says Smeal. "We know that but for the grace of God there goes us at 17 or 18. Men can't feel that." The leadership of the antiabortion group has been overwhelmingly men. "They're not even trying to put up any token women," she says.
About 46 percent of all American women will have an abortion in their lifetime, says Smeal. "At issue is whether they will have safe ones. They never introduce any concept of the male having to notify his parents. There is nothing about talking to the boys about their behavior. Most of these girls who are impregnated as teenagers are impregnated by men over the age of 18. There is no desire on the part of the legislatures to deal with the male's responsibility.
"I go from state to state and I see such a pattern. Where is the compassion for the kid 16 years old who is in trouble? They are politically trading away the rights of a subset of women to pacify a group of men, whether it's bishops or legislators. They are trading away on the grounds that 'what we are doing is right.' Meanwhile, we never talk about the moral behavior of men."
Which might be a good starting point for the women legislators to get back in the game. They were elected because women thought they would do a better job of representing their interests.
They can start introducing bills requiring parental notification of young men who cause a pregnancy and begin thinking about some innovative approaches such as requiring the young men to go into pregnancy prevention programs -- sort of a sexual version of the driving schools that bad drivers have to attend to get their licenses back. Or they can stiffen penalties against men who have sex with girls under the age of 18.
It takes two to tango, and there must be plenty of creative ways that women legislators can think of to take the lead in this dance.