FRIDAY MARCH 20 was a bad day for women and pro-choice advocates. President Bush, in making his bid for re-election, successfully managed to sidestep the controversial abortion issue by making meaningless compromises. He placated a large segment of the electorate by making voters think he is on their side, when in reality he is doing his utmost to frustrate their efforts to guarantee the right to abortion.
Bush has shown yet again that he has no backbone or true conviction. In recent months he has been an ardent pro-lifer, responding in part to the harsh attacks mounted by his ultra-conservative challenger, Patrick Buchanan. He has supported the movement that is gaining steam throughout the country to reverse Roe v. Wade.
Yet he was apparently afraid that he was alienating vocal and powerful pro-choice voters, and that there are enough of them out there to jeopardize his chances for re-election.
WHEN INSTITUTED in 1998 through an executive order written by Bush, the gag rule did not permit medical professionals in federally funded clinics to speak of abortion as an option to their patients. By doing this, Bush hoped to gain more conservative support.
On March 20, though, Bush flip-flopped and modified the rule. In its new form, the gag rule allows certified doctors to mention abortion as an option to their patients, but they are not allowed to refer them to doctors or clinic which perform abortions. Nurses are still not allowed to talk about abortion with patients.
Bush hoped that changing the gag order would convince women voters that he is, in fact, a president who could respond to their needs and concerns. But in fact Bush's actions prove the opposite.
Bush's tactic is to "kick sand in the public's eye," as a New York Times staff editorial charged. It is a simple ploy to gain more votes, not the beginning of a program to help women protect their right to an abortion.
THE PARTIAL lifting of the gag rule might seem like a significant step. The problem is that it does not go far enough. Many of the limitations on the kind of medical treatment a doctor can advise in a federal clinic are still in place.
Doctors can now advise women on all relevant procedures, but they are not allowed to refer them to clinics that perform abortions. Most women already know what an abortion is. What they need help with is deciding if it is medically advisable--and if it is, finding someone to perform the operation.
In modifying the gag rule, the President aimed not to offer better medical care to pregnant women, but to secure more votes.
It doesn't help women to know all of their theoretical options, only to have a doctor refuse to refer them to a competent and safe abortion clinic.
In addition, in small rural towns there is a paucity of certified doctors. Most pregnant women see nurses, who are still forbidden to talk about abortion. The new modification does nothing to help these women and in fact specifically discriminates against them.
Women who are poor are especially hard hit. They can often use up the money they have, traveling around the country, in a desperate attempt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion. The number of doctors who refuse to perform abortions is rising at a rapid rate, making it increasingly difficult for women with limited savings to find one before it is too late.
In the end, many women have unwanted children and have no money left to support them. The New York Times reports that half the students at the John Hopkins School of Medicine say they will not perform abortions when they are doctors. This is indicative of the pace at which our country is moving towards a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the increased difficulty women have in getting an abortion.
BUSH'S MODIFICATION of the gag rule does not substantially change it. Pregnant women are still in a vulnerable position when they have to go to federally funded clinics to ask for medical advice. Bush's motive in changing the gag rule was not to offer better medical care to these women. His only aim was to secure more votes.
American voters are skeptical about every politician's motives this election year. We must not let ourselves be fooled into complacency by Bush's deceptions--no matter how much he shields his waffling as standard policy changes.
Clearly if Bush feels he is under enough pressure from pro-choice groups, and he wants a chance of winning these voters, he will attempt to please them.
The electorate must show Bush that he has not yet done enough to win the confidence of the voters to whom he is pandering. If he wants to trade votes for abortion rights, so be it.
Those of us who value a woman's right to choose abortion can use that to our advantage by speaking out and letting him know he has not yet done enough. We are not so naive as to think that Bush isn't just making idle campaign promises like "no new taxes" that will be forgotten or changed once he is in office again.
March 20 may have been a bad day for pro-choice advocates, but if we don't let ourselves be fooled by Bush, then maybe we can finally force him to make some real concessions.