The Guardian (London), November 5, 2004

Marching into the past: George Bush is back in the White House - which means a fresh assault on the right to legal abortion

Out in force . . . more than a million activists demonstrate in Washington earlier this year in support of abortion rights

These are dark days in America, the darkest in recent memory for women's reproductive rights. Women across the country are shuddering in their bathrobes to hear Bush use the word "mandate" to describe his recent election victory. Just look at what he did when he so clearly didn't have a mandate, back in 2000. For the first time in recent history, Roe v Wade is seriously imperiled.

The right to choose our own reproductive destinies, a right which we have taken for granted for decades now, is, after Tuesday, extremely precarious. Bush may have more than one supreme court justice to appoint over the next four years: 80-year-old conservative chief justice William Rehnquist is currently gravely sick, and several others are close to retirement. At the federal level, with his increased majority in the Senate, Bush can now appoint judges who will slowly chip away at a woman's fundamental right to choose. Over the past four years, he has made no secret of his desire to do this, of his support for the prettily phrased "culture of life", as he - or his speech writers - put it. It is unfortunate that the Democrats failed to make enough of this issue in their election campaign.

I have no desire to enter into the general atmosphere of Kerry-bashing and Democratic self-flagellation, currently in full swing in the US. I think Kerry ran a dignified and powerful campaign, and we have to remember that he lost in what was actually a fairly close election. But he did bungle the pro-choice issue.

In a series of otherwise masterful performances in the televised debates against Bush, he appeared visibly nervous whenever the issue of abortion came up. He reminded us of his Catholic background; he told us how uncomfortable he is personally with abortion - before saying that he would protect a woman's right to choose. A squeamishness and general discomfort with the issue communicated itself to the American viewer.

He never said, clearly and forcefully, what many American women already knew - that, if elected, Bush would undermine and attempt to overturn Roe v Wade, and that our right to safe and legal abortion would very likely disappear. Nor did he press Bush into clarifying his own position on the issue, which would have forced the president to alienate the vast majority of moderate female voters who believe that women should have control over their own bodies. I believe a truly powerful answer to that one question, in that one moment, would have brought countless women voters out for Kerry. Throughout his campaign, the polls showed that Kerry had a surprising degree of trouble reaching women, who historically vote Democrat; his silence on this one important issue allowed Bush to put security, and the Republican-voting "security mom", centre stage.

A large majority of the United States, men and women, support Roe v Wade. Instead of pandering to the undecided voter with pro-life leanings - who was never going to vote Democrat anyway - Kerry should have followed Bush's example and mobilised his own base. Bush and Cheney never shied away from using scare tactics to secure voters; Kerry should have got the message out, in no uncertain terms, that under the second term of a Bush administration American women might very well lose their right to choose.

A younger generation of women can barely imagine what it might mean to be denied abortion rights (they may not need to; it may well happen). They don't, of course, remember the days of illegal backalley abortions, of women dying of mysterious infections, hurling themselves intentionally down flights of stairs, or drinking strange chemicals to induce miscarriages. They believe wire coathangers belong to the distant, sepia-toned past of history books and the latest Mike Leigh film. They can't imagine that in America today, with all our much-vaunted freedom, we could lose this one fundamental right. And I am convinced that this is part of why the much ballyhoo-ed "youth vote" did not in fact materialise: young people did come out in greater numbers this year, but then so did everyone else. In spite of the aerial television shots of college students standing in snaking lines, throwing balls to pass the time, they did not flood the polls.

In April this year, more than a million women - many of them students, many of them first-time protesters - marched on the White House to protest at the Bush assault on women's rights. Kerry should have spoken directly to these young voters, and made clear what was at stake. Even women in their 30s and 40s would have broken ranks with their husbands if he had, and voted Democrat.

One of the delicate strategies at work in this election was the fact that Democrats believe they must masquerade as Republicans in order to win over the vast swathes of this country that vote "red". Clearly this doesn't work. Everybody knows who is who, despite the subtle doubletalk: the only hope for Democrats is to be Democrats: to put issues such as abortion rights, which we know may alienate some conservatives, front and centre.

The fact that so many people came out for the Republicans, and said that they were voting on "moral issues" only means that the Democrats have to let it be known that they have moral issues of their own; this was never a battle between right and wrong, good and evil. Instead of being intimidated by the Republicans' moral vocabulary and surrendering the whole issue to the right, Kerry should have seized the opportunity to redefine what American "morality" means. Democrats will never win over the Christian evangelicals, no matter what they do; nor will they win over anyone who is voting on issues such as stem-cell research, or the right to life, or the nature and quality of the president's faith. They should not have wasted time trying to appease or flatter this demographic.

Women in this country overwhelmingly support the right to choose, and if Kerry had spelled out all the ways this critical right is now at risk under Bush, I am convinced we might have woken up on Wednesday with the better man as president.

Katie Roiphe is the author of Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End

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