Abortion and the Political Process

WHEN the Supreme Court in July upheld narrow restrictions on abortion under a Missouri statute, advocates on both sides of the issue made sweeping claims about the decision's importance. Anti-abortion forces crowed that Webster v. Reproductive Health Services marked the beginning of the end for legalized abortion in America. They vowed that they would flood state legislatures with bills to regulate abortion all but out of existence.

Abortion-rights campaigners were no less apocalyptic in the alarms they raised. Many choice proponents doubted the movement's ability to protect its interests in the statehouses against determined and well-organized anti-abortion lobbyists.

Just three months later, all these predictions seem extravagant. Events last week demonstrated that the pro-choice movement, though partly stripped of its constitutional protection, is far from politically feeble. A special session of the Florida Legislature, in a stunning rebuke to anti-abortion Gov. Bob Martinez (R), killed in committee all eight abortion-restricting measures he proposed.

Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives, reversing a 1981 law, voted to permit Medicaid funding of abortions for poor women impregnated as a result of rape or incest (the law currently permits federally funded abortions only to protect the life of the mother). The measure is primarily symbolic, since rape or incest accounts for only about 1 percent of aborted pregnancies; yet it suggests a shift in political momentum on abortion, especially since 26 congressmen switched their votes from last year.

The gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia may also be straws in the wind as to the increased political potency of the pro-choice movement. In both states anti-abortion Republican candidates trail Democrats favoring choice; both GOP hopefuls have been backed into declaring that, despite their personal opposition to abortion, they would not try to tighten current restrictions.

Of course, the long, 50-state political battle over abortion is just beginning. Anti-abortion forces are strong in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Louisiana, and what appears to be a new political wind behind choice may prove to be only a gust. Yet many choice advocates are themselves astonished at the degree to which the Webster decision has galvanized those wishing to preserve today's nearly unrestricted right to an abortion.

One argument made for preserving Roe v. Wade is that turning abortion over to the political process would be laborious, untidy, and divisive. Yet those conditions inhere in democracy. There is something elitist and patronizing in the contention that some issues simply shouldn't be entrusted to the moral judgment of the people, working through their elected representatives. Recent events make it appear that the forces in the abortion fight are contending on a level field. Under such circumstances, we have much faith in the workings of democracy.

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