Wife's role in women's group now in focus
WASHINGTON -- In 1998, two teenage girls -- one pregnant, one a new mother -- sued a Kentucky school district because officials there, hoping to send teens a message about unwed motherhood, denied them admission to the National Honor Society.
In an affidavit filed in the case, Serrin M. Foster, president of the group Feminists for Life, argued that the school district's policy would ''encourage students to hide their pregnancies and not seek prenatal care . . . and instead obtain an abortion, or, worst of all, commit neonatal infanticide."
Foster's affidavit was written by a technology attorney named Jane Sullivan Roberts, the wife of President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court, John G. Roberts Jr.
As US senators and their interest group allies engage in an intense guessing game over how Bush's first Supreme Court pick would rule in cases involving Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision creating a right to abortion, his wife's role in the Washington-based Feminists for Life is emerging as a point of scrutiny. But the story is a complex one.
Feminists for Life believes ''that women should be protected from abortion," Foster said yesterday. That means outlawing the procedure but, she quickly adds, ''that's not our main thing."
The 33-year-old group, which takes its ''feminist" label seriously and boasts Democrats as well as Republican members, rarely addresses the legality of abortion on its website. Instead, the group's focus is ''to eliminate, through practical solutions, the root causes of driving girls and women to abortion," as Jane Roberts wrote in the 1998 affidavit.
That means pressing colleges to provide affordable housing and healthcare for new parents, fighting family caps in welfare reform, working for expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, and seeking better enforcement on child support.
In the course of her work for Feminists for Life, where she serves as pro bono counsel, Roberts has allied with many of the same groups that are fighting her husband's nomination. Among them: NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, and NARAL. In the Kentucky case, her affidavit supported a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Feminists for Life says the group seeks to bridge the great ideological divide in the abortion debate by reducing the need for abortion. ''The central theme is that they don't accept the conventional wisdom that the interest of the woman is somehow opposed to the best interest of the child," said Wendy Long, a member who is also chief counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network.
As a board member, Jane Roberts -- a devout Catholic who has two adopted children, ages 4 and 5 -- has shown a particular interest in how to support birth mothers who give up their babies for adoption, Foster said. She described Roberts, who earned her law degree from Georgetown University and a bachelor's degree from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, as ''very professional and very smart."
Feminists for Life was organized in 1972, one year before Roe and shortly after its founders were expelled from a NOW convention for distributing anti-abortion pamphlets. Foster described its early years as a ''hippie, left-wing" organization whose activists were just as likely to be found at rallies against war and nuclear weapons as at anti-abortion meetings.
''They were feminists who didn't think abortion fit with the fight for equality," Foster said.
Long noted that the group claims lineage to early suffragettes who opposed abortion as something ''men have forced on women for their convenience."
The organization remained a loose group of volunteers based out of Kansas City, Mo., until 1994, when members opened an office in Washington. Shortly after, Roberts, an attorney at the Washington law firm of Shaw Pittman, approached the group and offered to help.
Roberts joined the board as executive vice president and used her legal skills to help set the group's nonprofit status, write its bylaws, and execute staff contracts. Today the group claims about 26,000 members who pay $25 in dues, a full-time staff of five, and a $500,000 budget.
In its first major public policy battle, Feminists for Life joined with the ACLU, NOW, Catholic Charities, and NARAL to fight a Republican-backed welfare reform plan that would have cut off extra dollars to welfare mothers having additional babies. Feminists for Life stressed to Republican lawmakers that abortions had increased under an experimental program in New Jersey. The proposal died.
The group also worked on behalf of child support enforcement legislation backed by Democrats, and sought out Republican backers on Capitol Hill for the expansion of the Violence Against Women Act. The group is also lobbying for legislation to combat sex trafficking here and abroad.
''We need to prevent children from being coerced into prostitution, rescue the children who already are victims, prosecute the traffickers, and reduce the demand," Marie Smith, the group's international director, wrote in a recent op-ed article in The Washington Times. More recently, the group has been linked to legislative efforts more commonly associated with conservatives. It vigorously backed federal legislation banning the procedure that has become known in law as ''partial-birth abortion."
Earlier this year, its celebrity honorary chair, ''Everybody Loves Raymond" star Patricia Heaton, made a public plea to restore the feeding tube of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband had been granted multiple court orders to allow her to die. But most of the group's work is quieter. A few years ago, Foster said, she noticed there were no pregnant women on college campuses, concluding they either dropped out of school or sought abortions. ''We were this very well- educated board which had focused on the poor," Foster said. ''But one out of five abortions are in college. Everybody realized you didn't have a choice."
So, starting with Roberts's alma mater, Georgetown, they began to sponsor forums on campus and to press administrators to provide affordable housing, day care, and maternal healthcare. Georgetown designated townhouses just blocks from its gates for parent housing, offered child care, and turned a part-time staff member on women's crisis issues into a full-time staffer whose purview includes guiding pregnant women to needed services, Foster said.
At forums that have been conducted at such campuses as Harvard, Tulane, Wellesley, Cornell, Stanford, and the University of California at Berkeley, Foster has championed what she calls ''the feminist case against abortion."
She also condemns Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that is sure to be at the heart of John Roberts's confirmation fight this fall. At a March 2004 forum at Harvard, she told a full audience at Fong Auditorium: ''Since Roe, 40 million American children have been aborted. A third of your classmates are missing."
According to the Harvard Crimson writer reporting on the event, ''the audience fell silent."