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OTI Online Spring 2009

Common Enemies: LGBT, Abortion Share Foes
by Pam Chamberlain

In our Spring ’09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss feminist and progressive values that transcend politics -- our Lines In The Sand.


When I was in college, a group of radical women dressed as witches ran around major U.S. cities doing zap actions, placing hexes on male-dominated institutions like Wall Street, the courts, even wedding fairs. I really didn’t get what W.I.T.C.H., or the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, was trying to say, and it made me nervous. I’m happy to report that forty years later, they make perfect sense to me. Their brand of in-your-face political work was all about sticking to principles.

Compromise can lead to unintended consequences.

Recent inside-the-Beltway behavior has caused me to think again about the value of drawing a line in the sand. We are told, often with a patronizing tone, that stubborn entrenchment blocks reform. But compromise can lead to unintended consequences.

The Third Way, a D.C. think tank that seeks to mobilize the large population of evangelical centrists, has put forth a call to find common ground between progressives and evangelicals in the attenuated battle in the culture wars. This group of progressives, working with evangelical leaders, has written ”Come Let Us Reason Together” and is, no doubt, attempting to find common ground.

Digging Under the Surface

On the surface Third Way’s “Come Let Us Reason Together” attempts to address the “root causes of abortion,” or the need for abortion services through a refusal to ban or restrict abortion, support for prevention of unintended pregnancies, and increased access to comprehensive sex education, contraception, services for pregnant women and adoption. Sounds good. How can this be a problem?

Lavender Hill Mob(precursor to Act Up) demonstrating with pro-choice activists
Bryant Park, New York City, January 22, 1986 - Pro Choice activists celebrate the legalization of abortion alongside the Lavendar Hill Mob, the precursor of Act Up.

As Fred Clarkson, an analyst of the Religious Right, has pointed out, the evangelicals involved in Third Way thinking are some of the same ones like Jim Wallis and David Gushee who authored their own bottom-line document in 1996, “The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern.” Their own line in the sand was that there is no right to abortion and that those who attempt to claim that right are ruining the moral fiber of the country. While common ground initiatives can be first steps in logjam breakthroughs, it’s hard to imagine why pro-life religious leaders would agree to the Third Way’s language.

The bill that has emerged from this document, the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act,” is what really counts in Washington, and this bill has multiple “compromise language” provisions pro-lifers favor. It would provide grants for ultrasound equipment (a favorite of pro-life crisis pregnancy centers since ultrasounds are claimed to deter women from abortions) and informed consent regulations that dump anti-abortion propaganda on pregnant women.

Conventional wisdom says that compromise forces those with less power to concede more to their more powerful adversaries. The reality is in 2009 that pro-lifers are less powerful than they were. The major concession they are making -- that abortion will remain legal -- has already been determined by Obama’s election, so it’s not really a concession at all. Pragmatically it makes sense for them to wait it out and continue their incremental chipping away at authentic access to reproductive services for women. Meanwhile, they appear to be conciliatory, while negotiating to get federal funds to block abortion access.

What appears to be an attempt at reconciliation could be another in a long line of tactics to limit women’s rights, and those progressives involved need to heed the warnings of analysts like Jodi Jacobson and Sarah Posner.

Common Disdain for Liberation

Women and queers share common enemies, because we share the same goal: liberation from rigid sex roles and other oppressive restrictions on our lives. The cultural traditionalists who resist the rapid social change around them, like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and Concerned Women for America, scapegoat the women’s and LGBT movements as the forces they claim are destroying our culture. By focusing on the vulnerable targets of those who have not yet experienced full equality, the Right’s leaders have been able to use existing sexism, homophobia, and transphobia to fan the flames of prejudice for its larger agenda of seeking and maintaining political power.

Women and
queers share common enemies.

It’s hard to believe that there still is no federal workplace protection for LGBT people. ENDA, or the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, has been around in one form or another since 1974, struggling to become law. Again, that seems to be a good enough reason for some compromise language to break the impasse. Religious conservatives have disingenuously argued that their religious freedom would be compromised if they were required to hire LGBT people, cloaking outright prejudice in the vestments of the church. And what emerged has been the willingness of liberal politicians to exclude transgender people from protections against employment discrimination. What kind of a message is that?

To those who say the time is not right, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a powerful response. King answered criticism that he was divisive and “untimely” by pointing out that no real progress has ever occurred without a struggle by the oppressed for their freedom, however uncomfortable that process feels for people nervous about conflict. Even the centrist gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign has changed its position and now demands that protections for transgender people be included in the bill. Besides, there is a lot more to gay liberation than employment rights. When Congress takes up the bill again, we cannot let bickering over its wording distract us from the fundamental goal: the guarantee of basic human rights for all people.

In the midst of the attempts to negotiate, it is just too easy to forget the reasons we are in the fight in the first place. Women and LGBT people continue to be the targeted by those who wish for a past we never really had and are threatened by a future that we cannot control. Too often the Christian Right has mobilized this group to think and act in ways that obstruct civil and human rights. It’s our responsibility to hold firm to our principles and not let anyone negotiate them away.


Pam Chamberlain is senior researcher at Political Research Associates in Boston where she studies the opposition to LGBT and women’s rights and the ideology of the Religious Right.

Also see Mobilizing Our Dreams for Reproductive Justice by Loretta J. Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Higher Ground, Not Common Ground by Merle Hoffman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see Equal Rights Amendment Still Brings Out Ranters by Jennifer S. Macleod in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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