Whoever thought that the man who helped put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court—and raked Anita Hill over the coals in the process—would be the last best hope of abortion rights advocates?
Welcome to the truly alarming post-election reality.
In a second W. term, anti-choice conservatives are fighting furiously to keep Republican Arlen Specter from being head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees appointments to federal court benches. That’s because, despite having helped confirm the most conservative judges now on the Supreme Court, he’s pro-choice. Now the senator who became the epitome of sexism in 1991 when he scoffed at Hill and the very idea of sexual harassment may be the only thing standing between an army of bloodthirsty archconservatives and the law of the land.
Whether or not Specter gets his post, the current showdown marks the first shot in what promises to be the bitterest battle over abortion yet. For years, advocates of the right to choose have been accused of claiming the sky was falling, when in fact it wasn’t. Despite their grave warnings, abortion has remained legal, if increasingly restricted, since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973. But now, for the first time, Bush is likely to be in a position to appoint Supreme Court replacements who will have the power to end American women’s right to abortion for much more than the next four years. Support for choice on the current court already hangs in the balance (the split is sometimes five to four, sometimes six to three). With Chief Justice WIlliam Rehnquist sick with cancer and several other justices already way past what most think of as retirement age—Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens, who both support Roe, are 74 and 84 respectively—the sky soon could really fall.
Both sides in the scorching war over abortion realize the potential for drastic, history-altering change. Last week, Planned Parenthood CEOs from across the country gathered in Seattle to begin mapping out their defense. At the Center for Reproductive Rights, a pro-choice organization whose lawyers have argued abortion-related cases before the Supreme Court, staff readied themselves for an onslaught of anti-choice legislation and legal challenges. Even before the election, the center sent out model legislation that could help states protect the right to choose if Roe is struck down. Meanwhile, the most aggressive opponents of abortion began pushing a no-holds-barred approach to clear every possible obstacle from their path, including changing 200-year-old Senate rules that allow senators to block approval of nominees by filibustering. Some even suggested blocking Specter’s chairmanship by rewriting regulations so the current anti-abortion committee head wouldn’t have to step down.
That Specter, who has approved every judge W. has nominated in his first term and has repeatedly promised that he wouldn’t oppose nominees just because of their views on abortion, has become the focus of conservatives’ wrath only shows their determination to stomp out abortion rights as completely and quickly as possible. Anti-Specter rhetoric has gotten particularly heated since November 3, when he mentioned the possibility that senators could block a Bush nominee through filibuster—as they did with 10 nominees in W.’s first term. Specter also raised the question of whether he would support all of Bush’s picks. “That obviously depends on the president’s judicial nominees,” he told reporters. “I hope that I can support them.”
The right has responded as if Specter had ascended to the bench himself. On November 16, the Christian Defense Coalition and Operation Rescue was slated to hold a “pray-in” to protest his possible appointment as chair. “How dare Specter promote killing unborn babies and continue religious bigotry when President Bush just received a fresh mandate from the American people, whose clear priorities are moral and spiritual values,” reads one of the anti-Specter petitions on gopusa.com. Focus on the Family, rightmarch.com, the Christian Coalition, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Family Association, and other far-right groups have also piled on to declare Specter unfit for the chairmanship. Last week, the website notspecter.com claimed to have so far gathered 21,796 signatures on its anti-Specter petition.
In truth, the group pounce has little to do with Specter’s comments, which amounted to little more than a statement of the fact that Democrats still have enough power to nix an unwelcome appointment. (Despite Republican gains in the election, the GOP has only 55 Senate seats, five short of what’s needed to end a filibuster.) Conservatives were scheming to oust Specter well before his supposedly incendiary remarks. More than two months before the election, Robert Bork wrote a piece subtitled “Why Arlen Specter Must Go” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Bork, of course, is the conservative who would have been sitting on the Supreme Court himself rather than writing for fringe religious journals had Specter not opposed his appointment in 1987. (The incident gave rise to the verb “to bork,” as in “Bork Specter before he Borks us!,” a recent posting on the conservative website freerepublic.com.)
Now Bork is just one of the players in the righter-than-thou game. And it’s not only the moderate Specter who’s out of line, according to these conservatives. The other Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, who once likened gay sex to bestiality and doesn’t believe in the constitutional right to privacy, has also been warned about sticking to the right-wing script. Because he supported Specter in his senate race, “Rick Santorum has already severely strained his relationship with conservatives,” said Mike Schwartz, the man who speaks on behalf of the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
How far conservative Republicans are willing to push their game—and how many rules they break in the process—could well determine how the next four years will unfurl as well as whether women retain access to safe and legal abortion. While conservatives are demanding payback and claiming responsibility for the Republican victory, the majority of Americans do not share their views. The Republicans know this, of course. They’re the ones who proudly trotted out pro-choice moderates like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani, and George Pataki for their convention. Bush knows this, too. After all, he supported Specter in a close primary over Patrick Toomey, a staunch conservative and opponent of abortion.
Though the president’s own views are closer to Toomey’s, Bush, who was hoping to win Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, made a strategic decision to back Specter. “He needed a man who has links to moderates and Democrats,” says Tanya Melich, political consultant and author of The Republican War Against Women. With a disastrous war still unfolding in Iraq, an exploding deficit, and half the country feeling alienated and betrayed, the Republicans still have plenty of political reasons to need support beyond the religious right. Whether or not they get it will likely depend on whether they pursue the witch hunt of women’s new best friend, Arlen Specter.
Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano Graduate School, New School University.