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The abortion wars

30 years after Roe v. Wade

(Page 2 of 4)

Justice William Rehnquist decried the trimester system laid out by the majority as "judicial legislation."

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At the time, abortion was legal in only four states - New York, Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington. Suddenly, it was legal everywhere. But for abortion-rights forces, the celebration didn't last long. The antiabortion movement, centered at first in the Catholic Church, galvanized and fought abortion on many levels - at the clinics, in state legislatures and courts, in the US Congress, and back in the Supreme Court itself. Abortion-rights forces have played defense ever since.

Since 1973, attitudes toward abortion, as charted by Gallup and the General Social Survey, have held remarkably stable even as the public has become more liberal on other social issues, such as gay rights and women's equality.

"There has been some movement in a prolife direction, but you'd have to get out a magnifying glass" to see it, says Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and an author on the subject. "Fifteen percent are prolife, about a quarter to a third are prochoice, and the balance, it depends."

Opinion experts suggest that the effectiveness of the antiabortion movement has bumped up against other trends - such as higher education levels and less affiliation with organized religion - that might otherwise have liberalized opinion toward abortion. When framed around the question of whose choice an abortion decision should be, the public clearly favors the woman. Two-thirds of the public also consistently oppose overturning Roe.

Still, the way abortion is perceived has evolved since 1973. At the time of Roe, discussion centered on the woman's rights. But the rise of technology has altered that.

"All the remarkable developments in fetology and the images we now have of an embryo - how quickly you start to get all those characteristics that we call human, measurable brain activity, and so on - have made it impossible for anyone to make a coherent argument that it's just a blob that isn't human yet," says Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago divinity school. "Clearly, it's a nascent human being. It's not going to be a giraffe."

What makes America's abortion wars so remarkable is how public and political they've been. Part of that speaks to the larger US cultural mosaic - the conflicts of a country that is both deeply religious and committed to secularism, a nation that invented modern feminism but remains ambivalent about women's roles. America's highly legalistic culture has also made it inevitable that a matter as private as reproduction would wind up in the courts.

Has 30 years of legalized abortion made Americans more cavalier on issues of human life, as some antiabortion advocates had warned?

Not necessarily: On physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, Americans remain queasy, ethicists say. Public discomfort over the use of embryonic stem cells and human cloning has also shown that "there is still a moral seriousness in the American people that is quite uplifting," says Professor Elshtain.

Looked at another way, it's not necessarily true that banning abortion would enhance respect for life. Consider Romania under former President Nicolae Ceaucescu, says Ms. Kissling of Catholics for Free Choice: Abortion was strictly illegal - and unwanted children packed orphanages.

But abortion critics also say that, in fact, women facing unwanted pregnancies in this country don't have as much "choice" as the abortion-rights side claims.