More than 30 years since the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, the national debate over abortion rights continues. One of the Supreme Court’s most significant decisions, the ruling has divided much of America into “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps, and inspired massive grassroots activism.
It all began in Texas in March 1970 when two young attorneys filed a suit on behalf of 25-year-old Norma L. McCorvey, under the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” who challenged the state’s criminal laws that prohibited abortion, except in cases where the mother’s life was in danger.
Henry Wade was the Texas attorney general who defended the anti-abortion law.
A three-judge district court ruled in Jane Roe’s favor, but refused to invalidate the Texas law. Both Jane Roe and Henry Wade appealed to the Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-to-2, the justices decided that state governments lacked the power to prohibit abortions. The landmark 1973 ruling gave women a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. As a result, the laws of 46 states were weakened or overturned.
James Balkin, who teaches constitutional law at Yale University Law School, says opposition to Roe v. Wade came almost instantly -- mainly from religious and conservative groups. According to Professor Balkin, these groups viewed the ruling as a consequence of feminist and gay-rights activism in the 1960s and ‘70s, and as detrimental to traditional values and social institutions such as marriage, the family and religion.
He points out, “There has been a movement to overturn Roe vs. Wade since the opinion was decided in the early ‘70s. Indeed, Roe v. Wade helped generate a strong counter-reaction, which was also a response to the sexual revolution and to homosexuality and to changes in American sexual mores. This also helped produce the [conservative] religious movements in the 1980s and ‘90s."
Since the 1970s, more than 30 states have adopted laws limiting abortion rights.
"Taking of innocent life”
Most anti-abortion or “pro-life” activists view abortion as the taking of innocent life, which they argue begins at conception; and thus requires legal protection. Other pro-life activists maintain that the Supreme Court ruling violates state’s rights under the Constitution.
Yale University’s James Balkin notes pro-life activists argue the abortion issue should be dealt with by state legislatures and through the democratic process.
“One group thinks abortion is generally immoral and another group thinks that abortion is a decision that should be left to individual states. There is a potential tension between these two positions because if you believe that abortion is murder, then why would you leave it up to individual states? You would require that all states have the same rule because in all states abortion would be murder. It would be murder in New York, just as much as it would be murder in Alabama,” says Balkin.
The pro-abortion, or “pro-choice” position is equally complex. According to some polls, between 55 and 60 percent of Americans are against criminalizing abortion and believe Roe v. Wade is necessary to preserve women’s equality and personal freedom. But an increasing number of Americans favor placing limits on abortion.
“The American public has a very complicated and conflicted view about abortion. Although they want to protect the basic right, many Americans continue to have moral qualms about abortion and wish that abortions were less frequent and rarer,” adds James Balkin.
Politics and Medicine
Some analysts say much of this conflict is due to recent medical advancements.
Michael New, a public policy specialist at the University of Alabama, says sonograms and embryology have made the public aware of how well developed fetuses are in the early stages of pregnancy.
Science and technology have strengthened the plea for granting some sort of legal status to the fetus, contends Professor New. He says, “Ultrasound technology has developed over the past 15-to-20 years and often times the first picture of an infant occurs before he is born. People have ultrasounds taped to their refrigerators. Their pictures are in magazines and on TV. The fact that people can see the unborn prior to their birth, the fact that they have many characteristics of a newborn baby, I think, has led more people to be more sympathetic for protection for them.”
Pro-life activists quote many cases of surgery on fetuses, which they assert makes abortion even less acceptable.
The United States has one of the highest abortion rates in the industrialized world. Twenty-four percent of all pregnancies end in abortion. From 1973 through 2002, more than 42 million legal abortions were preformed.
The Debate Heats Up
Susan Cohen is Assistant Director for Policy Development at The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based nonprofit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis and education. She suggests that among many Americans, including some on the pro-choice side of the equation, are uneasy with the country’s high rate of abortion.
“At the same time,” Cohen says “politics in the United States is becoming more socially conservative. And the fact that our federal courts now have a lot of judges on them who are willing to give increasing latitude to states to regulate abortion, there is more ability and interest in testing the legal limits at the state level.” says Cohen.
Abortion opponents see this fight turning in their favor with the recent appointments of two new justices to the Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts and Alito, say most observers, helped tip the balance of the nation's highest court, to a loose 5-to-4 conservative majority.
And the long simmering abortion debate has heated up again over at least two new cases that are working their way to the Supreme Court. Less than a year ago, the Bush administration appealed to the high court to rule against what it calls “brutal, savage late term abortions.” And pro-choice activists are fighting a recently adopted South Dakota law that criminalizes all abortions, except when the mother’s life is in danger.
Most observers predict that the Supreme Court won’t overturn abortion, but could turn the matter back to the states, which means the battle will continue for many years to come.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.