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The abortion wars

30 years after Roe v. Wade

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2003


Audrey Diehl will never forget the time her mother took her to an abortion-rights rally in downtown San Antonio.

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Ms. Diehl was 9 years old, and antiabortion protesters shoved posters of aborted fetuses in her face. But it wasn't the images that upset the girl. It was "the act," she says, "all that yelling."

"That crystallized for me the zealotry of the antichoice movement," says Diehl, now a 25-year-old living in Los Angeles. "It made me more understanding of why people need to continue to voice prochoice ideas."

Yet until recently, Diehl says, she took the right to abortion for granted. Like many women who have no memory of life before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its historic Roe v. Wade ruling - 30 years ago Wednesday - she wasn't active in the abortion-rights movement.

Now, since the election of the second President Bush, who is pursuing antiabortion policies on many fronts, and has the potential to name enough Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe, Diehl is scared. And she's just started volunteering at her local Planned Parenthood.

Across the country, at the American Life League in Staf- ford, Va., Sara McKalips is hard at work at the Rock for Life project, trying to get young people to join the fight against abortion. She says she has always opposed abortion, but didn't become active until she was 18 and saw pictures of aborted fetuses on the Internet. She knows, she says, that "from the moment of fertilization, a unique human being exists who deserves to be protected."

While at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., she supposed most of her fellow students were also against abortion. "But most students didn't really do anything with their prolife beliefs," says Ms. McKalips, who graduated last May. "The prolife movement needs people to take more of a stand on the issue and be less compromising."

These two young women, members of a generation who have lived their entire lives under Roe, are in a way atypical for their activism. Since 1973, nearly 38 million abortions have been performed in the US - yet a majority of Americans are conflicted on the issue, and avoid it.

But those with firmly held beliefs, like Diehl and McKalips, still number in the millions. And they reflect what author Lawrence Tribe has called an enduring "clash of absolutes" that's made Roe v. Wade one of the most contentious Supreme Court rulings ever handed down - one that has had a profound impact on American culture and politics, and, in the eyes of some scholars and activists, could one day be overturned.

Jan. 22, 1973

Frances Kissling was the director of an abortion clinic in New York City on the day that Roe v. Wade was handed down. She remembers arriving at work at 8 a.m. and "having kids in their dirty cars sitting in the parking lot, having driven from Kentucky and Connecticut and wherever, being afraid, dealing with the fact that they've just come from someplace where abortion was illegal to a place where it was legal."

Then the legal and cultural earthquake struck. In two 7-2 decisions - Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton - abortion was declared a constitutionally protected right, under a right to privacy not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but developed through Supreme Court precedent. Though the justices ruled that states could regulate and ultimately ban abortion as pregnancies progressed, there was no mistaking the fundamental shift.

"It was a shock," says Ms. Kissling, now president of Catholics for Free Choice. "No one expected it."

In his dissent, Justice Byron White castigated the majority for holding that "the Constitution of the United States values the convenience, whim or caprice of the putative mother more than the life or potential life of the fetus."