Roe v. Wade at 40: Abortion under siege

Roe v. Wade settled nothing. It's the perfect political tool, the perfect wedge in American politics. It's America's political curse. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 22, 2013 — Reproductive and abortion rights were front and center in Democratic campaigns last year. The Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services started the year with directives requiring that businesses provide health insurance including contraceptives without a copay, and requiring that all persons enrolled in health plans that provide elective abortion pay an “abortion premium,” a surcharge to fund abortions. 

Democrats effectively used reproductive rights as a bludgeon against Mitt Romney, and also against a number of GOP congressional candidates. Roe v. Wade was trotted out yet again, with warnings that Republicans would alter the Supreme Court to undo it, and eventually force women to become illiterate, barefoot baby factories, chained to their ovens. 

For all the importance of abortion as a tool to rally liberal voters and pry open Democratic pocket books, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade passed with a remarkable lack of attention. The front page of Google News Tuesday morning contained not even one mention of Roe, and if President Obama exulted in 40 years of legal abortion during his inaugural address, he did it in his heart. Reproductive rights, so important in his campaign, were absent from his speech.

That would be unremarkable except for what was in his speech: climate change, civil rights, gay rights, entitlements, business regulation and the inevitable railroads and green energy. He nodded to every important liberal cause but one: abortion. 

There are good reasons for abortion rights activists to leave this anniversary unmarked. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 70 percent of respondents don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. But at the same time, most Americans consider themselves “pro-life,” not “pro-choice,” and while they think that abortion should be legal, they also think that it should be rare. 

Just as most Americans think that the right to bear arms should be regulated, they also think that the right to an abortion should be regulated. States have been successful in passing laws to limit abortions, for instance by requiring parental notification for abortions performed on minors, or imposing 24-hour waiting periods on women who choose to have an abortion. Third-trimester abortions are repugnant to most Americans, and only four physicians in America still perform them; providing late-term abortions turns out te be extremely dangerous to the physician.

Because Democrats ignored the Clinton formulation that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare” and eventually cut it from the Democratic Party platform, Republicans were able to make the argument that Democrats favor “abortion on demand.” They have spent years putting up barriers to abortion that render the right to an abortion theoretical for many women. States have cut funding for family planning services (Texas cut it from over $120 million to just $40 million, for instance, and as a result clinics offering family planning have closed all over the state), and abortions are growing harder to obtain. 

If Democrats have overreached on abortion, Republicans have made the same mistake. As GOP Senate candidates learned last year, they go too far if they start talking about rape-induced pregnancy as God’s will, or try to distinguish between “legitimate rapes” and other rapes. 

Americans really do want abortion to be legal, and they really do want it to be rare. Most people instinctively understand that a fetus is not just a bit of unwanted tissue like a wart, or simply a parasite - a lumpy tapeworm to be flushed out of the system - even if the fundamental difference eludes the abortion priesthood at NARAL.

Americans also understand that there’s something gruesome and horrific about requiring a rape victim to take a fetus resulting from rape to term. For a woman to learn that her unborn child will be badly damaged is sad and tragic, and while some people believe that an abortion simply compounds the tragedy, many others consider an abortion in this case to be compassionate. At the very least, they consider this to be a situation that calls for compassionate forebearance while the woman and her physician make their decision.

The extremes on abortion are incapable of understanding the majority of people in the middle, let alone understanding the other extreme. There is nothing anyone can do or say to change the position of people in the extremes, but the majority in the middle can be moved from one side to the other by ugliness on either side. “Legitimate rape” was especially ugly last year and drove voters to the left, but a celebratory attitude towards Roe would not attract anyone to the “pro-choice” side of the debate.

And so it’s well that people who favor abortion rights kept this anniversary low key. If they want to stop further restrictions on abortion rights, they would do well to find ways to make abortions rare. They should focus their efforts on saving and promoting family planning, and make sure that the rest of us know they believe abortion is the last option, not the first.

People who oppose abortion rights should have the courage of their federalist convictions and fight this battle state by state. They’ve done well with that strategy. They would also do well to show that they care as much about the woman who carries the child as they do about the fetus, and that they care about children who are born as much as they do about the unborn. 

If the two sides approached abortion in a reasonable way, we might be able to stop the eternal battle over Roe v. Wade. But as long as Roe retains its power to mobilize party bases and pry open pocket books, it will remain a hot political topic for decades to come, and it will continue to polarize American politics. Roe’s legacy is a bitter one indeed. 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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