A woman's right to abortion, like Miranda warnings given by police, have become enshrined in both law and culture over a generation.
This week, the Supreme Court reendorsed Miranda heartily. But by only a slim 5-to-4 decision, it reaffirmed the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion.
The court struck down a 1997 Nebraska law that tried to outlaw a peculiar type of abortion known by its opponents as "partial birth." The procedure is particularly repugnant because it is done only late in the second trimester of pregnancy at the earliest. That has made it easier for anti-abortion advocates to have 31 states pass laws against it.
The campaign to pass such laws, has been openly political in its attempt to chip away at the Roe decision. The "partial birth" procedure is difficult for almost any politician to defend in public.
But the court did not let that political purpose nor the repugnant details influence its decision.
The majority instead decided that the Nebraska law puts too much of a burden on a woman in choosing to abort a fetus. Such a burden infringes on her right to liberty, as the Roe decision interpreted the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment.
The court, like the state of Nebraska, said "partial birth" is done when a fetus is "pre-viable," or not yet capable of living outside the womb. That was a crucial standard in Roe which limits a state's role in abortion.
The Nebraska law was too broad, vague, and lacked any provision in regard to a woman's health, the court said. The procedure, in some instances, might be the safest one for a woman to choose, it found.
Like many Americans, the justices were emotionally divided in this case. The majority admitted there are "virtually irreconcilable points of view" on abortion. Indeed, accepting state control over anyone's body or terminating a pregnancy are difficult issues for any individual, let alone society.
To avoid such difficult decisions requires higher visions on such things as marriage, sexual relations, and the origin of life. To limit the abortion debate to just a question of rights and medical procedures is to miss larger moral and spiritual questions.
The slim court vote will likely only intensify the abortion debate. Perhaps it can be widened with fresh ideas.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society