Helen Thomas Laments State of Individual Liberties

Lynda Waddington

Veteran journalist Helen Thomas is worried about what she describes as the current "chipping away" of individual rights by the Bush administration and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Veteran journalist Helen Thomas is worried about what she describes as the current "chipping away" of individual rights by the Bush administration and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I've had my eyes and ears on the White House for years, and I've never seen it in worse shape," Thomas said recently while in Des Moines where she was keynote speaker for the annual luncheon of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa. "The rights of the individual are being hacked away."

Thomas, who has covered every president since John F. Kennedy, says citizens who seek change will need to work with Congress.

"It seems the present conservative [U.S. Supreme] Court is targeting Roe v. Wade and there's not much you can do about it unless Congress is willing to deal with these touchy subjects," she said. "Without pressure, I doubt they will."

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Thomas, 86, believes that having the issue of abortion loom so prominently on the political landscape is a distraction from other, more needed discussions.

"How sad it is that [abortion] is still an issue on the political scene when we should be more concerned about education and health care for all — especially the deprived," she said while slowing shaking her head. "Our president is now about to veto an extension of child health-insurance legislation. To paraphrase his objections, he feels it would lead to adult government health-insurance programs."

Thomas says there are two major ironies in President George W. Bush's stances.

"The president has never had to worry about health care or medicine for his family — nor will he ever have to," she explains. "The American people provide very well for presidents and past presidents. … There is also an irony that [President George H.W.] Bush's parents founded the first Planned Parenthood chapter in Connecticut."

The more than 300 people crowded into the small banquet room at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, many of them standing, grew silent as Thomas outlined her thoughts on the battles to come.

"It seems now, more than ever, the Supreme Court is prepared to put Americans — especially women — back in the 19th century if not earlier," she said. "Women, in particular, have to be more vigilant. They can never let go and think that the battle is won. There has been a chipping-away at every advance we've had. Pretty soon they'll be taking aim at the vote." 

Her final sentence provided a quick and nervous laugh from the audience. Thomas looked around the room, meeting many women eye-to-eye before continuing.

"Women have come a long way," she said. "Now we have the possibility of the presidency, and a woman already serves as speaker of the House. Two women have served in the powerful role of secretary of State. There is no doubt that we have come a long way, but we have not come far enough."

In a private interview after her public remarks, Thomas continued her thoughts on the role she believes women must play in the coming years and on the imminent threat of the Supreme Court.

"I don't think we have passed a point of no return — I don't think we will ever do that," she said. "I think women should be alerted to the possibility of what may come. Women should not rest on their laurels. They need to understand the danger of this court. This is a deliberate court. It is very rigid, and it is going to be against a lot of women's rights in terms of equal pay, birth control, abortion or anything else where women are striving for equality. The justices were deliberately picked because of that. I think the litmus test was given to them even though they denied it."

Thomas also admits that when she was originally told the conservatives' plans for the court, she didn't fully understand the implications.

"People were saying during the [Ronald] Reagan administration that this was about the Supreme Court," she said. "I wasn't sure at that time what they meant. But the truth is that the court is their one last resort to push their agenda. It is their one last resort to prevail."

When pressed to name a piece of legislation or a presidential action that she believed most affected women and reproductive health, Thomas refused.

"This is not a dodge," she said. "Everything they do affects women. You can't separate it out."

At the end of the day, Thomas says all of these issues can be set back on the right course if we return to the ideals found in our national documents.

"Let's return to the true ideals of the Bill of Rights," she said. "The issue is not the right to live. The issue is the kind of life. The issue is freedom without government or outside interference."

Thomas served for 57 years as a correspondent and White House bureau chief for United Press International. She was the first woman officer of the National Press Club, was the first woman member and president of the White House Correspondents Association and the first woman member of the Gridiron Club. She is also the author of four books, including her latest released in paperback in June: "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public."

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