Where Abortion Issue Stands 25 Years Later

Crusaders for both sides show no sign of tempering zeal

On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States launched one of the great social and political battles of our times.

The case was Roe v. Wade, in which seven of the nine justices - a margin that stunned both sides - declared that women had a constitutional right to abortion.

The right to privacy, found implicitly throughout the Bill of Rights, was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy," Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the majority.

Since the Roe v. Wade ruling, which pitted an unmarried, pregnant woman against the Dallas County district attorney, more than 28 million legal abortions have been performed in the US.

But, in fact, the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973 did not produce a sharp surge in the number of abortions. That had started a few years earlier, when New York legalized the procedure. Women who could afford a plane ticket could end a pregnancy; women of meager means couldn't.

"Undeniably, the biggest impact of Roe has been on ordinary women's lives," says David Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University in Atlanta. "There's a big class issue here. Even in the 1960s, if you were well-connected, the odds were you had a fairly easy experience [ending an unwanted pregnancy] rather than a traumatic experience."

Roots of a controversy

Throughout the ages, women have figured out ways to induce abortion. As a medical procedure, it wasn't even against the law in every state until the end of the 19th century.

So for today's anti-abortion activists, the years and decades before Roe hardly represent the "good old days." But these crusaders remain undaunted in their quest to stop what has, for many women, now become a part of the fabric of modern life: Indeed, if current rates hold, 43 percent of American women today will have an abortion at some point in their lives.

Helen Alvare, a leading pro-life spokeswoman, rejects the notion that legal abortion has become a permanent part of our culture.

"People think it's a means to an end that equals freedom," says Ms. Alvare, who works for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "What I'm saying is, in the end, we can never embrace killing as a means to ultimate freedom."

Shifting image

Despite polls that show a majority of the public still supports the right to legal abortion, at least early in a pregnancy, Alvare believes its public image has evolved. Ten years ago, when people thought about abortion, they also thought "sexual revolution" and "women's liberation," she says. "Now they think social problem, controversy, morality, teen pregnancy, out of wedlock pregnancy, sexual license. The connotations are far more negative."

Whether any changing connotations have contributed to the steady decline in the abortion rate in the '90s is impossible to say. Other factors are possible: better use of contraception, the aging (and therefore declining fertility) of the child-bearing-age population, reduced access to abortion, new regulations on abortion.

For abortion-rights activists, the Roe victory remains incomplete. As long as their opposition keeps fighting, they feel they can't let up - even though Roe isn't in any immediate danger of being overturned.

"I feel pinned down by sniper fire; you can never get up and move to the next objective," says Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who at age 26 argued the winning position in Roe v. Wade.

Abortion opponents' public-relations success in highlighting a rarely used procedure they call "partial-birth abortion" scares Ms. Weddington. The issue has shifted attention away from women and onto the baby, or fetus, and has given new momentum on Capitol Hill and in the states to legislation aimed at regulating abortion.

But these regulations - which include 24-hour waiting periods, the distribution of information about fetal development, and parental notification or consent for minors - do nothing to prohibit abortion; they just make abortion less convenient. (Researchers have found, however, that 24-hour waiting periods requiring two visits to a clinic do reduce the number of abortions.)

Even state laws banning partial-birth abortion, which are currently not in effect as they undergo court challenge, would not prevent a single abortion, opponents of abortion acknowledge. A doctor could simply use a different procedure.

On a fundamental level, the issue of whether abortion will continue to be legally available has been solved, argues Mr. Garrow, author of a history on reproductive rights, called 'Liberty and Sexuality.'

"The constitutional part of this battle is over. It's been over since Casey," he says, referring to the 1992 Supreme Court ruling Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. In that case, the court allowed for greater regulation of abortion, but reaffirmed the core holding of Roe.

Next generation of activists

Weddington isn't so sure her victory is permanent. And she worries about where the next generation of abortion-rights leaders will come from.

"It's hard to get people excited about spending time and effort defending an issue that for 25 years has been that way," she says. "Women today have so many more responsibilities and pressures."

An ironic footnote to Roe v. Wade centers on "Jane Roe" herself, the plaintiff who later revealed herself to be Norma McCorvey. In 1995, she became a born-again Christian - and pro-life.

"I now think abortion is murder in any trimester," says Ms. McCorvey, whose autobiography, "Won By Love," will come out Jan. 22.

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