Roe v. Wade at 40: America remains divided

Very nice story today from The Associated Press on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

The point that stood out to me is how different this issue is from same-sex marriage, which has seen fairly substantial movement in favor over the past few years.

Abortion is different. People are dug in and they are emotional about this issue. And why wouldn’t they be — lives are at stake.

Norma McCorvey (left), Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, and her attorney, Gloria Allred, hold hands as they leave the Supreme Court building in Washington on April 26, 1989. Months later, the high court ultimately upheld the Missouri law in the case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Service, making it illegal to use public officials or facilities for abortions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Let’s review the AP story:

The Supreme Court momentous Roe v. Wade ruling was a landslide. By a 7-2 vote on Jan. 22, 1973, the justices established a nationwide right to abortion.

The Roe opinion, written by Justice Harry Blackmun, asserted that the right to privacy extended to a women’s decision on whether to end a pregnancy. States have been allowed to restrict abortion access at late stages of pregnancy, but only if they make exceptions for protecting the mother’s health — and the net result has been one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world.

At the time of Roe v. Wade, abortion was legal on request in four states, allowed under limited circumstances in about 16 others, and outlawed under nearly all circumstances in the other states, including Texas, where the Roe case originated.

One of the most liberal members of the current Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is among those who have questioned the timing of the Roe ruling and suggested that it contributed to the ongoing bitter debate.

“It’s not that the judgment was wrong, but it moved too far too fast,” Ginsburg said at Columbia University last year.

She said the court could have put off dealing with abortion while the state-by-state process evolved or it could have struck down just the Texas law, which allowed abortions only to save a mother’s life.

Forty years and roughly 55 million abortions later, however, the ruling’s legacy is the opposite of consensus. Abortion ranks as one of the most intractably divisive issues in America, and is likely to remain so as rival camps of true believers see little space for common ground.

Unfolding events in two states illustrate the depth of the divide. In New York, already a bastion of liberal abortion laws, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged in his Jan. 9 State of the State speech to entrench those rights even more firmly. In Mississippi, where many anti-abortion laws have been enacted in recent years, the lone remaining abortion clinic is on the verge of closure because nearby hospitals won’t grant obligatory admitting privileges to its doctors.

“Unlike a lot of other issues in the culture wars, this is the one in which both sides really regard themselves as civil rights activists, trying to expand the frontiers of human freedom,” said Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “That’s a recipe for permanent conflict.”

On another hot-button social issue — same-sex marriage — there’s been a strong trend of increasing support in recent years, encompassing nearly all major demographic categories.

There’s been no such dramatic shift, in either direction, on abortion.

For example, a new Pew Research Center poll finds 63 percent of U.S. adults opposed to overturning Roe, compared to 60 percent in 1992. The latest Gallup poll on the topic shows 52 percent of Americans saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, 25 percent wanting it legal in all cases and 20 percent wanting it outlawed in all cases — roughly the same breakdown as in the 1970s.

“There’s a large share of Americans for whom this is not a black-and-white issue,” said Michael Dimock, the Pew center’s director. “The circumstances matter to them.”

Indeed, many conflicted respondents tell pollsters they support the right to legal abortion while considering it morally wrong. And a 2011 survey of 3,000 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute found many who classified themselves as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”

Shields, like many scholars of the abortion debate, doubts a victor will emerge anytime soon.

“There are reasonable arguments on both sides, making rationally defensible moral claims,” he said.

Nonetheless, the rival legions of activists and advocacy groups on the front lines of the conflict each claim momentum is on their side as they convene symposiums and organize rallies to commemorate the Roe anniversary.

Supporters of legal access to abortion were relieved by the victory of their ally, President Barack Obama, over anti-abortion Republican Mitt Romney in November.

A key reason for the relief related to the Supreme Court, whose nine justices are believed to divide 5-4 in favor of a broad right to abortion. Romney, if elected, might have been able to appoint conservative justices who could help overturn Roe v. Wade, but Obama’s victory makes that unlikely at least for the next four years.

Abortion-rights groups also were heartened by a backlash to certain anti-abortion initiatives and rhetoric that they viewed as extreme.

“Until politicians feel there’s a price to pay for voting against women, they will continue to do it,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a lightning rod for conservative attacks because it’s the leading abortion provider in the U.S.

In Missouri and Illinois, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate lost races that their party initially expected to win after making widely criticized comments regarding abortion rights for impregnated rape victims. In Virginia, protests combined with mockery on late-night TV shows prompted GOP politicians to scale back a bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound.

“All these things got Americans angry and got them to realize just how extreme the other side is,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

“This issue will remain very divisive,” she said. “But I do see this as a sea-change moment… The American public wants abortion to remain safe, legal and accessible.”

However, anti-abortion leaders insist they have reason for optimism, particularly at the state level.

In the past two years, following Republican election gains in 2010, GOP-dominated state legislatures have passed more than 130 bills intended to reduce access to abortion. The measures include mandatory counseling and ultrasound for women seeking abortions, bans on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, curbs on how insurers cover the procedure, and new regulations for abortion clinics.

The ACLU and other abortion-rights groups are challenging several of the laws in court, notably the 20-week ban. Yet already this year, Republican leaders in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere are talking about new legislative efforts to restrict abortion.

Despite all the furor, abortion has been commonplace in the post-Roe era, with about one-third of adult women estimated to have had at least one in their lifetime.

Of the roughly 1.2 million U.S. women who have abortions each year, half are 25 or older, about 18 percent are teens, and the rest are 20-24. About 60 percent have given birth to least one child prior to getting an abortion. A disproportionately high number are black or Hispanic; and regardless of race, high abortion rates are linked to economic hard times.

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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One Response to Roe v. Wade at 40: America remains divided

  1. Ralph Sierra says:

    I can add nothing to the word of God. I can and will ask all my brothers and sisters to seek the end of the sin of abortions.

    “The word of the LORD came to me:
    Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I dedicated you,
    a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”
    JEREMIAH 1: 4-5

    Pray for courage and wisdom, and he will teach you what to say.

    “Do not be afraid of them,
    for I am with you to deliver you—oracle of the LORD.
    Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying to me,
    See, I place my words in your mouth!”
    JEREMIAH 1: 8-9

    The Lord of Host will do battle for us.

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