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In United States, Women Activists Divided on Many Issues

Women activists across the United States were hard at work in 2005, and while they focused on many of the same issues, they often disagreed on how those issues should be resolved.

Whether they supported it or opposed it, prominent U.S. women's groups agree that abortion was a key issue in 2005, and will likely remain so in 2006. President Bush's choices to fill two Supreme Court vacancies were widely seen as critical to future judicial rulings involving abortion rights. John Roberts has been confirmed as the Supreme Court's new Chief Justice, while Samuel Alito is awaiting confirmation to fill the seat of Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Both choices are opposed by the National Organization for Women, one of the largest groups of feminist activists in the United States. "We were one of the first organizations out in front saying we do not believe John Roberts comes to the court with an open mind and a passion to protect the rights of women,” says NOW's Action vice president Melody Drnach. “We now have another opportunity with the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, and we are, along with many other allied organizations, working very hard to get the information out about his record, his philosophy, because we do not believe he is going to be supportive of women's reproductive freedom."

But where Melody Drnach sees setbacks, Janice Crouse sees progress. She's a senior fellow at the Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute, an organization whose self-described mission is to bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.

She calls John Roberts an outstanding pick for the Supreme Court. "He showed, I think, the whole nation that a conservative candidate can be a strong candidate who will interpret the Constitution as it was meant to be interpreted,” Ms Crouse says. “We also believe that Samuel Alito is the same kind of nominee and we are working very hard for his nomination as well. Equally important, we believe, is informing the public at the grass roots level what these issues are, that life is something sacred, that is inherent in our Constitution."

Janice Crouse says Concerned Women for America is also actively supporting the Bush Administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative, which provides educational programs, mentoring and other efforts to strengthen marriages in the United States. "We have today an unprecedented crisis in marriage,” she says. "Women are not getting married, and in the age bracket 15 to 44, more women are unmarried than ever before in the United States. She says due to a high divorce rate, as well as a prevalence of cohabitation --or living together without marriage -- ”women are ending up bearing the brunt of all of these social trends, so that they are, as I put it, ending up having to rock the baby and pay the rent (provide child care and support their families financially)."

The National Organization for Women has also focused attention on efforts to promote the economic and social well being of women -- supporting stronger domestic violence legislation, and calling for more federal funds to fight poverty. Melody Drnach believes Hurricane Katrina helped highlight the inadequacy of current funding for poverty programs.

"With our activists in the Gulf States, we are working to help them in many cases rebuild,” she says, “because it's very clear that if you don't join together, raise your voice in unison loudly, then people up here in Washington make decisions about how this administration addresses natural disasters on a large scale.”

Global women's issues have also been a concern for American activists over the past year. Melody Drnach says NOW recently launched a new international initiative. "We joined with activists in El Paso and marched into Juarez, Mexico to help raise awareness about the ongoing murders of women in Juarez and Chihuahua,” she says. “This is our first international direct action, but we have been for many years involved in summits and issues briefings and international meetings."

For Janice Crouse, of Concerned Women for America, international sex trafficking has been a major concern. "Over 800,000, mostly women and children, have been captured, coerced, lured into thinking that they're going to have an opportunity in one of the more well developed countries and forced into being sexual slaves or labor slaves for someone,” she says. “So that's an area that Concerned Women has been very active in."

Janice Crouse says her group has also taken part in efforts to help women in Iraq and Afghanistan learn new skills and have a more prominent voice in their countries. Those developments, combined with what she describes as a "groundswell" of change on social issues like abortion and abstinence, make her optimistic about the year ahead.

“It's really exciting to see that teen pregnancies are down and that abortions are down as well,” she says “These are cultural changes that are very significant, and I think we've played a part in that."

While Melody Drnach of the National Organization for Women has opposed numerous federal policies over the past year, she too sees 2006 as a time of new possibilities.

"Looking at the Supreme Court, combined with how we treat the poor in our country, combined with the impact the (Iraq) war is going to have on women and their families, there are so many things that are serving to mobilize people,” she says. “I think there's going to be so much energy as we move into the midterm elections. And I guess you can look on that mobilization as a good thing."

From the composition of the Supreme Court to the federal budget to international politics-activists believe all those issues have a direct impact on women, and they expect to make their voices heard both at home and elsewhere in the world in the year ahead.