It’s beginning to look a lot like 1972 again in Washington. We’re embroiled in a seemingly unwinnable war, the White House has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar in an increasingly ugly scandal, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is back on the table. It’s almost enough to make you want to play “American Pie” on an eight-track.
Normally, that third item wouldn’t be especially newsworthy. Some version of the ERA has been proposed in Congress every term since the ratification deadline of the original amendment expired in 1982. What makes this time different is that with the Democrats emboldened by their recent electoral victory, the newly reconstituted Women’s Equality Amendment (WEA) is likely to receive its first hearings on Capitol Hill in more than 20 years. As such, it’s worth a long, hard look from the public.
Symbolism aside, one is forced to wonder why the liberals are reviving this archaic amendment. It seems like nothing more than a political ploy, a pathetic attempt to harken back to the left wing’s long-past heyday. What can the ERA do for us now when it’s been a dead letter for a generation?
There are plenty of reasons why this amendment is worth considering on its own merits. Much as we’d like to pretend that the revolution is over and that the feminists won, women are still under-protected by the laws of this nation from the workplace to the hospital to the bedroom. But the most important end that adopting the WEA might serve is actually one that its supporters have long attempted to brush past: answering the abortion question.
Despite its prominence on the political landscape, we have never truly had a nationwide debate on this divisive problem. Abortion has been sublimated into code phrases like “women’s health” and “judicial activism” or cordoned off into side issues like partial birth, buffer zones, parental consent, and waiting periods. Naturally, that perennial punching bag Roe v. Wade is the primary culprit for our silence. By making abortion a constitutional issue, Harry Blackmun and company assured that discussion about its legitimacy would take place within a legal framework and that the be-all and end-all of abortion activism would be litigation. The result is that pro-lifers aren’t happy because they haven’t won, pro-choicers aren’t happy because their victory is contingent on the continued survival of a man fast approaching 87, and abortion continues to poison our political discourse like a malarial mosquito that’s just too fast to swat.
The image of a pesky insect is particularly apt, since abortion really is nothing more than an annoying distraction from the task at hand. How many people on either side of the issue really think that abortion is the most important question facing our nation today? How many really think that this should be the litmus test on which our public figures are judged, rather than national defense, economic growth, Social Security and Medicare, the environment, taxes, education, or a whole host of other issues with far greater effects on the lives and well-being of Americans? Isn’t it time we dealt with this and moved on?
Fortunately, the Founding Fathers provided us with the necessary Citronella to drive this pest away. The Supreme Court has dealt with abortion at a constitutional level, and we must do the same. Short of a nationwide referendum, the call for approval by three-quarters of the states in the amendment process is as close to consensus as one can imagine. It’s time for us to take advantage of it, and the WEA provides us with that opportunity.
The death knell for the ERA has long been that it was considered a stalking horse for placing the right to abortion in the Constitution. The abortion neutrality amendment proposed by Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in 1983 was meant to be a way around making that the issue. After all these years of inconclusive judge-made law and bombastic rhetoric, why not make reference to the elephant in the room? Make the WEA an explicit referendum on abortion rights. Let us have the discussion, let the politicians do the polling and make their stances known, let the people respond by reelecting them or not. Let us make the decision through the democratic process, at long last.
This is a dangerous move for both sides. Given poll numbers that consistently show a majority of Americans favor some sort of abortion rights, the pro-life movement could face a crushing defeat. Given the rise of conservatism in the post-Reagan era, the pro-choice movement might not want to chance putting it to the public. But for a nation starving for real leadership not drained away by niche issues, it’s a risk worth taking.
If adopting the WEA means at long last taking the abortion question out of the hands of demagogic politicians and didactic judges and putting it in the hands of the people, that’s more than enough reason for us to support it. This amendment will help us do what is right for our country. Just like quagmires and scandal, that’s never out of date.