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The abortion wars

30 years after Roe v. Wade

(Page 4 of 4)

Foster has also worked in countries where abortion is illegal, such as Egypt, and seen firsthand what she calls the "psychological and physical consequences of a shortage of reproductive services." But is she really willing to risk her life, working in a clinic in this country? "Even when I have kids, I can imagine doing this," she says. "My husband and I have discussed this."

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Could Roe be overturned?

To some abortion-rights advocates, the Supreme Court is only one vote away from undoing 30 years of nationwide legalized abortion. But more likely, say legal scholars, there would need to be a larger shift in the court's composition for such an earthshaking ruling. And even if the court eventually had a solid majority of justices who believed Roe v. Wade was improperly decided, it's unclear that it would undo what many analysts, including antiabortion conservatives, call "settled law."

"What's hard for people who lack an acquaintance with the Supreme Court to understand is what a tremendously negative institutional, historical impact there would be on the stature of the court if they were to overturn it," says David Garrow, a historian at Emory Law School in Atlanta. "That's why I think it could never happen."

But if that day were to come, the legality of abortion would once again vary state by state. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 17 states currently have greater protection for reproductive choice than the federal Constitution; 17 other states "could face sweeping criminal bans on abortion" if Roe were reversed.

Conservative writer Marvin Olasky prefers to look at the movement through a cultural lens. The culture that accepts abortion is changing, he says, and the current view that Roe is acceptable will eventually seem untenable. That, he suggests, could eventually lead to a legal shift. "How long did it take the court to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson?" he asks, referring to the 1896 case that endorsed racial segregation. "That took 60 years. We're halfway there."

By the numbers ...

Worldwide, about 46 million abortions occur each year. Twenty million are illegally obtained.

Among American women, almost half of pregnancies are unintended. About half of those end in abortion - 1.3 million annually.

Between 1994 and 2000, the US abortion rate fell more than 10 percent, in part because of the growing availability of emergency contraception.

Abortion rates are at their lowest levels since 1974. They peaked in 1980-1981.

Of American women obtaining abortions, 52 percent are under 25. Women aged 20 to 24 account for 33 percent of abortions, and women under 20 obtain 19 percent of abortions.

In 2000, 87 percent of US counties had no abortion clinic, and 34 percent of women of childbearing age lived in those counties. In addition, 31 percent of US metropolitan areas had no abortion facilities.

Between 1996 and 2000, the number of abortion providers declined 11 percent. It's been dropping since 1982.

In 1997, 57 percent of obstetrician/ gynecologists performing abortions were aged 50 or older.

Eighty-two percent of large, nonhospital abortion facilities were harassed in 2000; most clinics are picketed at least 20 times a year. From 1985 to 2000, the proportion of large providers reporting bomb threats dropped from 48 percent to 15 percent.

The 1996-2000 abortion rate was highest in Washington, D.C. - 68.1 abortions per 1,000 women - and lowest in Wyoming, where 1 in 1,000 women had an abortion.

Source: The Alan Guttmacher Institute