Player of Choice

By 1993, Michelman and her allies had turned the tide of war. Pro-life politicians were losing elections, defecting, or assuring voters that abortion was constitutionally untouchable. The court had flinched from overturning Roe v. Wade. Pro-choicers held the White House and Congress. If Michelman had retired then, her memoir might have been a tale of triumph. Instead, it’s a plea. Pro-lifers have captured every branch of government and enacted the first federal abortion ban. The Democratic Party is rethinking its position. “The arc of history is bending into a circle,” she laments.

The first thing you have to understand is where Michelman came from. She was a stay-at-home Catholic wife. She bore three children in three years by relying on the rhythm method for birth control. Then her world fell apart: Her husband left her; she found out she was pregnant with a fourth child; she aborted the pregnancy; she went on welfare. Gradually, she got back on her feet. Trained in child development, she became an administrator of social service nonprofits, going from child care to family planning to abortion. The sequence is important. Michelman ended up in the abortion rights debate because she saw what unwanted births did to mothers and kids.

Years ago, Michelman explained this to me for a book I was writing about her and the movement. She wanted someone to write her version of the story. I demurred and wrote my own, but I see in her book the same person I saw then: a gentle idealist toughened by Washington, making brutally rational decisions but determined to see the best in people. She was treated badly by doctors–particularly the hospital panel that interrogated her before granting her pre-Roe abortion–but she defended them against restrictive legislation and harassment. She was treated badly by men, especially her first husband, but she defended all the harassers and adulterers–Bill Clinton, Bob Packwood, Chuck Robb–who stood with her for abortion rights.

The toughness came when she had to choose between half a loaf and nothing. In 1989, she helped Doug Wilder become governor of Virginia, overriding pro-choice purists who objected to Wilder’s support of mandatory parental consent for teenagers’ abortions. In 1992, she allowed federal pro-choice legislation to be stripped down, hoping to pick up enough votes to pass it. In the 2000 presidential primaries, when Bill Bradley claimed to be more reliably pro-choice than Al Gore, Michelman endorsed Gore and rebuked Bradley, killing Bradley’s candidacy.

This memoir explains each of these decisions. Michelman makes good arguments for the difficult calls of her early years. But by the end, she is blinded by earnestness. “Bradley called himself ‘the only candidate who’s always been pro-choice,’ a charge I felt was unfair,” she writes. Unfair? Bradley was right: Gore had previously supported pro-life legislation and had opposed Medicaid funding of abortions throughout the Clinton administration. So why did Michelman endorse Gore? Because, she argues, “If Bradley succeeded in raising questions about Gore’s commitment to reproductive rights, it would be difficult to mobilize pro-choice voters when, as every serious observer expected, the Vice President won the Democratic nomination.” Michelman the welfare mom had become Michelman the powerbroker, deciding which candidates would live or die, going not by their voting records but by their electoral prospects.

Even in retrospect, Michelman can’t see this episode for the throat-cutting it was. She sees herself not as Bradley’s executioner but as Gore’s loyal friend. That’s why she’s baffled that the same was done to her. First, Clinton cut a deal with Republicans to sacrifice international family planning funds. Then, John Kerry’s campaign scratched her from a rally, fearing she would offend Catholics. Then, the Democratic Party began recruiting pro-life Senate candidates and pushing pro-choice hopefuls out of the way. Democrats are treating women’s rights as “the easiest ballast to cast overboard,” Michelman protests. But that’s politics. One day, you’re chucking ballast; the next day, you’re the ballast.

How did abortion rights become a burden for Democrats? Michelman says it never was. But I think the story begins in 1993 when pro-choicers gained control of Washington. “Rather than judging and controlling the decisions women made, the nation could focus on improving the conditions that shaped their lives and choices,” she writes. It’s easy to see why a woman who was interrogated by a panel of doctors hates the idea of judging abortions. The word “judgment” appears throughout her book, always with distaste. But most Americans do judge abortions. They think all abortions are tragic, and some are worse than others. Many pro-choice people believe that. So do most women who have abortions. Pro-choice activists thought the era of judging abortion was over. It wasn’t.

Michelman thinks the tide turned against her in the mid-1990s, when pro-lifers began running ads with the message, “Life, What a Beautiful Choice.” NARAL’s pollster found that the message worked. He pointed out that NARAL spoke to the public only when abortion rights were threatened; it had no everyday values message to counter the appeal of babies and motherhood. Michelman’s answer was an ad campaign touting choice as a value. “I have a strong will to decide what’s best for my body, my mind, and my life,” said the female narrator. Michelman’s favorite ad showed a woman preparing to dive into a pool. “The image cut to the heart of the issue: a strong, decisive woman fully in control of her life, taking risks and responsibility,” she recalls. The heart of the issue? Diving? The change of subject betrayed weakness. On abortion, NARAL seemed mute. It didn’t understand that choice wasn’t a value. Choice was a framework within which values needed to be aired.

In Michelman’s memoir, you can see hints of what NARAL could have said and might yet say. She was drawn to the issue by the idea of healthy families and children. Her most compelling arguments for the public funding of abortion involve women who might otherwise die and orphan their kids. The women who initially persuaded Clinton to veto the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act were those who had had unhealthy pregnancies but managed, thanks to that procedure, to have healthy children afterward. Parenthood is a powerful theme. Why not embrace it whole-heartedly?

Because that would require an admission that abortion is bad. In her closing pages, Michelman vows to protect abortion rights “without apology.” Yet in the next sentence, she writes that “every woman would prefer to avoid this choice if she can.” Which is it? Here and there, she notes that birth control and sex education could make abortion less necessary. She challenges pro-lifers to pursue that project but never quite says the same to pro-choicers. Nor does she mention the print ads NARAL once tried on that theme. Why not? Maybe they felt too preachy. “We never rendered value judgments on what the woman should do,” Michelman says of her early days with Planned Parenthood. “That was her choice. That was Roe’s ultimate promise.” No. Roe’s promise was freedom of choice, not freedom from judgment. You can’t stop us from judging, any more than you can stop us from having sex. It’s our nature.