Roe: freedom and restraint

THE Supreme Court has reaffirmed, though by a narrower 5-to-4 margin, its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade, which acknowledged the right of women to abortion. This ruling came at the end of a burst of legal and social change that cleared the way for individuals to live more freely. Civil rights legislation gave minorities more-equal access in housing, voting, employment, and education, and to public places like restaurants. Environmental legislation acknowledged the interest of individuals in the general habitat. And the court accepted that the widespread existing practice of illegal abortions, mostly safe and affordable for the well-to-do but dangerous or unaffordable for the poor, needed legal guidelines; it added a trimester framework as a time restraint for women and medical authorities.

There can be no going back to the pre-Roe conditions of back-alley abortions. Politically, it would be harder to rescind rights of private decision than it was to acknowledge them. The line of social and economic change has led to greater intellectual, financial, and personal independence for women. Progress does not go backward.

Nonetheless there is concern that, while the right of individual decision cannot be abrogated, too many legal abortions are being performed, and restraint is required. That restraint should not come from government fiat, or unwarranted state intrusion into private responsibility for a pregnancy. In its ruling on a Pennsylvania case this week, the majority found that the state had wrongly attempted to ``intimidate women into continuing pregnancies.''

Chief Justice Warren Burger, in reversing himself and voting against the majority this time, argued that the ``state does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman,'' but that the state cannot simply create ``an absolute barrier.''

The chief justice reflects the view of many that abortions should neither be banned nor resorted to casually.

For the individual's as well as society's sake, there is a need to consider the enduring obligations of relationships as well as the wisdom of occasionally ending them. The general inclination should be to welcome children into the world.

It is not up to the government -- legislature, executive, or court -- or to political factions, whether of the left or the right, to determine wholesale what is essentially an individual decision.

The Supreme Court has done its best on the abortion issue. It should be supported in this undertaking. Its basic ruling has survived 13 years of practical testing and some of the toughest political debate imaginable. The court remains commendably undeterred -- though it should not be surprising that it shows some unease over the evolving balance between freedom and restraint.

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