By BONNIE ERBE
Now it’s official. Many of you have read my detonations during the past year about the fact American women’s cultural progress is in a stall, if not in a freefall. I’ve written that the number of women in Congress has remained relatively stagnant for the past decade. I’ve reported on data that prove the percentage of women occupying seats in state legislatures (the training ground for national politics) is down for the first time this decade after three decades of rising rapidly. I’ve written that women’s progress toward CEO status in major corporations is edging forward at a molasses-like pace and the same is true for women on corporate boards.
But now it’s official. The Associated Press reports from Rome, "Over the last 10 years, more than a dozen countries have made it easier to get abortions, and women from Mexico to Ireland have raised court challenges to get access to the procedure. The trend contrasts sharply with the United States, where this week South Dakota’s governor signed legislation that would ban most abortions in the state. The law is intended to set up a direct legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal."
Of course, abortion rights are not the "be all" and "end all" of women’s progress. But for decades this nation seemed to have settled on middle ground _ abortion should be legal, but with significant restrictions.
Now, we are "exiting right," retreating from that moderate position to one of extreme conservatism. As a result, I’m beginning to think abortion rights are an increasingly important marker of women’s advancement.
Let’s look back for a moment to get a better fix on their historical import. Women won suffrage on a national scale in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred employment discrimination based on gender. In 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX (which guaranteed equal opportunity for girls in education and sports) and the New York Times stopped running separate "Help Wanted_Male" and "Help Wanted_Female" employment ads. That was, of course, the same year the Supreme Court ruled abortion was a constitutional right available to women on a national scale.
So, Roe was one more drop in the fire-hose of legislative and legal advancements pushed for and enjoyed by American women in the 1960s and 70s.
I remember covering the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994 and the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995. American women were the envy of the world, with legal, reproductive, economic and cultural freedoms shared only by women in a handful of other nations _ mostly Scandinavian. That is changing.
In just six years, since evangelical Christians took over the Republican Party and thus dominated this president’s legislative agenda, American women’s rights moved perilously close to those of women in much less-developed nations. Now those rights are about to trail behind those of other western nations. From the Food and Drug Administration’s refusal to approve Emergency Contraception (or E.C.) without a prescription, to this president’s Supreme Court picks, to the administration’s cryptic effort to unravel Title IX by loosening college reporting requirements, block after building block of women’s civil rights have been undermined.
If you believe this to be an exaggeration, consider these other facts as reported by the Associated Press. Nepal, which used to ban abortion altogether, legalized it in 2002 without restrictions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and after that allowing it only to protect a woman’s life. In Italy, the Vatican is urging Italians to support antiabortion candidates in that country’s general elections next month. But Italian women face no real move to overturn Italy’s 1978 law, which allows abortion through the third month of pregnancy. The U.S. is leading the charge, back to the future.
This should not be an issue of national import. This administration has made it one by unraveling decades of momentum. Perhaps after the pendulum swings so far to the right that a 180-degree turn becomes a 360, the revolution back toward progress will ignite.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)