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Ask Gloria
Here's to the end of politics as usual
October 2-November 5, 1996

Q&A with Gloria Steinem | What is Ask Gloria?

Our votes have been cast and the 1996 elections are now behind us. Because the political climate is not much more different today than it was before November 5th: democratic pro-choice, pro-equality President and a GOP, anti-choice, anti-equality controlled Congress - casting our votes was only the beginning of our work.

During this past political season, some of us had more information than we knew what to do with and others of us were searching desperately to find out how our candidates stood on issues ranging from Welfare to school prayer to reproductive rights.

For those of us with access, the Internet helped us resource some of this information. One place that voters turned was to America Online's political columns. Among those there was Ask Gloria, inspired by Feminist.com's own Ask Amy, by writer, activist, and editor Gloria Steinem. Gloria provided on the road insight as she campaigned for twenty-four pro-choice candidates across the country. This combined with her more than thirty years of political activism and her knowledge and breadth of experience, provided AOL subscribers with inspiration to vote and tips on how to make casting our vote the beginning not an end.

Thanks to the generosity of AOL and Gloria, Feminist.com will highlight some of these responses to make us better informed voters. As the 106th Congress approaches, we need to be prepared to hold our government responsible for the issues that the majority of this country cares about.

(*In order to provide the most up-to-date information, some of the questions have been edited and updated from their original form.)



- Issues -

Q: Often, liberals (myself included) accuse conservatives of hypocrisy because they are pro-life and yet support the death penalty. As a Catholic, I have a hard time responding to similar accusations--that I am a hypocrite because I do not support the death penalty yet consider myself pro-choice. What are your thoughts on this? I need a comeback!

A: There is a difference between a fetus that cannot survive on its own, and an autonomous human being. I find the pro-choice, anti-death penalty positions consistent because both support the value of the individual, and both oppose the state's power over the individual--whether to make decisions about our reproductive lives, or the length of our lives.

However, I also think the Catholic, patriarchal position is consistent in a different way. There, the crucial thing seems to be not what is decided but who decides. Thus, the state may take a life in capital punishment or war, but for the individual to control reproduction is subversive. This also makes more sense of the Catholic Church's historic position: it allowed abortion up to the mid 1800's and even regulated it; a female fetus could be aborted for a greater number of weeks than could a male fetus. (It was wrongly thought that a male fetus "quickened" earlier, thus sex could be determined.) This was changed at the demand of Napolean III who wanted to increase the French population which had been decimated by war. He struck a bargain with Pope Pius IX--who wanted Napolean to support the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Thus, Catholic opposition to abortion doesn't seem to have been based on ensoulment or when life began, but a need to increase population. (Even The Bible makes clear that a man who strikes a women and causes her to lose her pregnancy has not committed murder. Thus a fetus is not a person.)

Q: How do you feel the issue of abortion is represented by the Democratic Party?

A: It's represented pretty well in terms of voting. For instance, in the 104th Congress out of 47 Democratic US Senators, 38 were pro-choice (meaning they have a 100% pro-choice voting record or they support one or two restrictions like parental notification and a 24 hour waiting period). Of the 53 Republican Senators, only 6 were pro-choice and 47 were anti-choice. (*The 105th Congress looks pretty much the same in terms of Republican and Democratic breakdowns. For a general overview, choice should be represented in the following way come January, 1997: In the Senate there will be 44 who are pro-choice; 5 who are mixed-on-choice and 51 who are anti-choice. In the House of Representatives there will be 158 pro-choice representatives; 38 who are mixed-on-choice; and 233 who are anti-choice. There are still 6 races to be decided.) However, in both parties, there is more opposition to the issues of reproductive freedom than there is in the public at large. That's true in the Republican party because of its control by rightwing extremists, especially the religious right. (Though the majority of Republicans are pro-choice, the Party Platform supports a Constitutional Amendment to confer personhood on the fertilized egg--thus equating abortion with murder.) But it's also true among some Democrats, because the anti-choice minority of Americans often turns out a bigger proportion of their voters than does the pro-choice majority.

Even when Democrats vote right, they often don't know how to talk about the issue, and therefore fail to get the full benefit of their overwhelming majority support. To help remedy this, Voters For Choice has prepared an excellent guide for candidates and individuals alike: Winning With Choice. To order: contact Voters For Choice, PO Box 53301, Washington, DC 20040-5301; #202-588-5200.

Q: What do you think of Clinton's veto of the bill that would have penalized doctors who perform "partial birth" abortions? Do you have any qualms about this barbaric practice?

A: First of all, it isn't a "partial birth" abortion. As the 35,000 members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote in a letter to Dole last year, when he was still majority leader of the Senate, "in defining what medical procedures doctors may or may not perform, HR1833 [the bill banning third trimester abortions, even to preserve a woman's health] employs terminology that is not even recognized in the medical community--demonstrating why Congressional opinion should never be substituted for professional medical judgment... The College finds very disturbing that Congress would take any action that would supersede the medical judgment of trained physicians and criminalize medical procedures that may be necessary to save the life of the woman."

Second, there are about 600 of these a year, and they are performed only when there is a risk to the woman's life or health and/or a severe fetal anomaly that would not allow the fetus to function or survive. If this procedure were needed by someone in the families of those who voted to ban it, I suspect that everyone of them--including Dole--would want it to be available. If it were illegal, they could fly to other countries to have this procedure--as the average patient could not.

Therefore, I'm proud of President Clinton for having listened not only to the medical profession, but also to individual women who have had this procedure--several of whom were anti-abortion until they discovered that they might otherwise risk life, health and future fertility to give birth to a child who could not survive.

I think that you, too, would rather make your own decisions with your doctor than have politicians vote on them--and have to accept their dictates. All women ask of you--or of Congress--is what you or the members of Congress would be likely to want for yourselves. (If anyone would like copies of the stories of women who have actually had this rare procedure, let me know where to send them.)

Q: First I want to say that I admire you and respect what you have done for the women's movement in the past. I think it takes people like you to change things. A catalyst so to speak. One thing that bothers me greatly however is that whenever the subject of women comes up it is insinuated that women are a homogenous group...pro-choice, democrat, pro-gay/lesbian, etc. It bothers me when the press refers to women as if they all think and vote alike. I especially see a frank ignoring of the fact that there are conservative women out there who are not right wing zealots and heretics as the press likes to paint conservatives. My question to you is this: I know you are pro choice. Have you ever had doubts about your position as you have gotten older (and wiser?) Have you ever had a moment of doubt when you have said to yourself "what if this is really wrong?" "what if we are held accountable at some point?" I know as I've aged, things that were once very black and white for me have turned somewhat gray. As a pro-life woman, I have often had moments when I have thought "maybe it just all doesn't matter. Maybe we are just blobs of protoplasm..." Just wondered if the same ever happens to you on the pro choice side? Thank you.

A: I agree that the media's treatment of the gender gap makes women seem all alike. In fact, African American women are the most likely to support issues of equality, single and college-educated women come next, and by the time you get to white married women, the gender gap is very narrow. I also don't think "conservative" and "liberal" mean much when applied to the sexual and racial caste systems. (I always think of my friend who said that she'd been married to one Marxist and one fascist, and neither one took the garbage out.) In fact, being pro-choice is a classically conservative position that most Republicans share: against government interference in the reproductive lives of citizens. I've never doubted being pro-choice because it protects your choice as well as mine. Being pro-choice means going to the same lengths to protect a woman from being coerced into having an abortion as to keep abortion safe and legal. (An early pro-choice activity was opposing the coerced sterilization of Hispanic women in California, and winning informed-consent guidelines in both English and Spanish.) I do think "pro-abortion" was the wrong term--since everyone would like to reduce the necessity of abortion. I prefer reproductive freedom--the freedom to have as well as not to have children.

I appreciate the openness of spirit in your question. I hope that you would support my choice, as well as your own. And in any case, we could work together for contraception and sex education that would diminish the necessity of abortion.

Q: I think its important that Dole not be elected, and therefore will vote for Clinton. How can I support Clinton, and still "punish" him for signing the homophobic Defense of Marriage Act?

A: I don't know if there is a realistic way to punish him other than writing--and publicizing exactly how you feel and exactly why it is so unjust for the government to deny marital benefits. Obviously, it's a bias like the ban in some states on interracial marriage that lasted into the 1960's.

As the Human Rights Campaign, Congressman Barney Frank, and many other gay and lesbian leaders have pointed out, however, Dole and the rightwing sponsored DOMA for the express purpose of taking gay support away from Clinton. They knew he couldn't sign onto a measure that had so little public support unlike the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the first federal gay civil rights statute, which Clinton did support.

I think we need to spend the next four years educating and expanding public support, and also chipping away at such non-federal areas as getting health, housing, and insurance for domestic partnership, and the right of same-gender couples to be custodial parents. Here in New York, we also had a high-spirited mass wedding ceremony of gay and lesbian couples, with the leaders of many churches officiating. Perhaps as the first President to appoint open gays and lesbians to the highest levels, and to support gay rights policies in health and employment, there will be the right moment to try again.

Q: If Bill Clinton is reelected but the Democrats don't take the House back, what will be the implications for the promises he made regarding the welfare bill?

A: Clinton has made clear that he can and will rectify some of its worst measures through a combination of executive order and line-item veto. (When it comes through for appropriations, the line-item veto would allow him to get rid of some of its ridiculous rightwing ideas; for instance, spending $250 million to teach abstinence to pregnant women.) But that won't change the legislation's fundamental problem of putting a five-year limit on the cumulative time an individual can rely on welfare (thus assuming that in five years, good jobs will miraculously appear and children's needs will miraculously disappear); throwing children on the mercy of state legislatures (which are the most special-interest controlled of all our various forms of government) failing to help biological parents in the important social job of childrearing.

With Clinton as the first President who knows what its like to be the son of a single mother with no economic resources, we have a chance of re-fashioning welfare reform in a way that is more compassionate and realistic. For instance, we pay more to keep someone in prison than we would to send that person to Harvard. Why not spend a little more in the early years, and help children of welfare to grow into productive citizens? The fact that we have a higher percentage of our citizenry on welfare than any other democracy in the world - and a higher percentage of our citizens in jail than any other country in the world - are related.

Even without Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole in punitive Congressional leadership, we will still have to work like crazy to educate about what welfare is really like and who's really on it. More of the estimated 70 million people who were on welfare at some time in their lives will have to stand up and be counted. That may be the only way to get rid of this ridiculous idea that the average recipient is a black teenage girl who has children in order to be generously kept by the government. (In fact, most people on welfare are white, and our welfare payments are the lowest in the world.) It's a return to the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor - perhaps even a genetic fault - that hasn't been around since the work houses for the poor in the 19th century.

But Clinton did come to Washington wanting to invest $11 billion more in the "social capital" of people now abandoned to welfare - and he did veto two welfare "reform" bills that were even worse than this one - so we have reason to believe that he's not happy with this current bill that cuts $55 billion, and punishes welfare recipients in many other ways. I believe he should have vetoed this bill, too. No matter who is there, we have to keep the pressure on. As Franklin Roosevelt said "We cannot be content, no matter how high the general [American] standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people - whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth - is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed or insecure." But as he also said to a group of citizens who came to lobby him, "You've convinced me - now go out and force me to do it." (For more about the realities of welfare and what to do about them, see The Tyranny of Kindness by Theresa Funiciello, Atlantic Monthly Press. It's good ammunition for the fight that will have to be waged after the election at a state or a federal level - or both.)




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