MIAMI — EXCEPT for a few counties in Nevada, prostitution is illegal throughout the United States.
But a Palm Beach County woman is launching a unique legal challenge to the constitutionality of the law in Florida. As a result, the battle is attracting national attention from women's groups and legal scholars.
Calling herself Jane Roe II, the former prostitute is attempting to follow in the footsteps of the Texas woman whose lawsuit legalized abortion in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision 23 years ago.
''Government just has got to get out of the bedroom,'' says Jane Roe II, who has kept her identity confidential. ''If Roe v. Wade gave women the right to privacy and the right to do with her body as she chooses, why isn't prostitution legal?''
US District Judge Jose Gonzalez has determined that the case has some merit. He has twice rejected motions filed by the Florida Attorney General's Office to dismiss the case.
Jane Roe II began her career in prostitution out of desperation. In the late 1970s, the just-divorced mother of pre-schoolers found herself working too many hours for very little money. A friend suggested she work for an escort service to help pay the bills. After much hesitation, she began a life that would provide her with an income of $800 to $1,500 a week.
''I would do anything in the world for my children, says Jane Roe. ''I would beg, plead, or steal. So what's wrong with working for an escort service for my children?''
Plenty, according to the state of Florida.
There is ''no fundamental right to privacy'' when it comes to selling sex, writes Assistant Attorney General John Goshgarian in documents filed with the court. The AG's office insists this is a commerce issue, not a privacy issue.
And the courts have long ruled that commerce can be regulated. Legal scholars note that the courts, reflecting societal moral standards, have also consistently ruled that trade in flesh may be illegal.
''Courts have to put a limit on the right of commerce,'' says Irwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
He points to state and federal laws governing adoption. ''Private black-market baby selling is illegal,'' Professor Chemerinsky says. ''Following this same line of reasoning, the state of Florida is arguing that a woman cannot simply sell her body and provide sex for money.''
Chemerinsky says he doubts that the privacy argument can be stretched to include prostitution. ''Since Roe v. Wade, federal courts around the country have limited the scope of the right to privacy.''
But Robin Blumner, the director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sees the issue differently. ''The right to privacy should afford an individual the right to exploit their body for monetary gain,'' Ms. Blumner says. ''Football players do it, boxers do it. Why can't a prostitute?'' The ACLU expects to find a ''friend of the court'' brief supporting Jane Roe II.
Also sharply divided over the case are feminists in Florida. While some view this as trailblazing, others view Jane Roe II's efforts as a setback to women.
''Prostitution, whether by choice or not, degrades women,'' says Shena Moss, president of the South Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women. ''This lawsuit gives too much dignity to the profession.''
But Siobhan McLaughlin, the Florida state director of NOW, supports Jane Roe II's arguments. ''Certainly if a woman decides on this career of engaging in the sex industry, that is essentially her business,'' she says. ''If she's not being coerced, and if she has other options, then maybe in some ways she does find that empowering.''
And other prominent feminists like Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, and syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman have recently come out in support of legalizing the world's oldest profession, but not without regulations.
Elliot Shaw, the West Palm Beach attorney representing Jane Roe II, says he filed the case in federal court because federal judges are ''lifers'' and not likely to be swayed by public opinion and political considerations.
''The federal court jurisdiction works in their favor, but so does the fact that the case was filed in Florida,'' says M.E. Melody, a professor of Constitutional law at Barry University. ''Florida is one of the few states in the country that has an explicit right to privacy in its state constitution.''