THE Supreme Court of the United States has narrowly refused to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a right to abortion for all American women. But by upholding most provisions of a Pennsylvania law restricting access to abortion, the court greatly broadened the regulatory options open to state lawmakers.
The return to a patchwork of abortion law, with the procedure restricted in some states and readily available in others, is at hand. In light of the Pennsylvania ruling, however, it's clear that only the appointment of yet another strong conservative to the Supreme Court would bring a final reversal of Roe v. Wade.
The court's slim majority, led by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, put forward a new standard for abortion cases: whether a statute puts an "undue burden" on a woman's rights. Justice David Souter pointedly told the crowded courtroom that a reversal of Roe would threaten the court's legitimacy. Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasized the private, intimate nature of decisions regarding the formation of families.
These views herald the formation of a plurality of moderately conservative and liberal justices who want to preserve women's access to abortion, as required by Roe. But what the court saw as a reasonable burden on women - such as required discussion of the alternatives to abortion and a 24-hour waiting period - may present significant hurdles to women who want the right to make up their own minds without state interference.
A particularly intrusive requirement for women in shaky marriages - mandatory notification of husbands - was struck down by the court as too burdensome.
Concerns about privacy, equal access for women of all means, and the care of unwanted children argue for retaining unfettered freedom of choice, at least in the early stages of pregnancy.
The issue now shifts to the political realm, with abortion-rights forces in Congress poised to push for passage of a bill to solidify Roe into national law. Their efforts face an inevitable presidential veto - which is just what some in Congress are counting on to damage George Bush with pro-choice voters.
But politics - whether of the presidential or state-house variety - won't resolve the abortion issue. This issue is fundamentally addressed through moral education, character building, and spiritual development, which lead individuals toward responsible decisions in their personal lives. The 1.5 million abortions performed in the US yearly underscore the need to strengthen such processes and the institutions that nurture them.