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Possibility of Supreme Court Vacancies Re-Ignites Abortion Debate

The prospect that President Bush may soon be able to nominate several justices to the U.S. Supreme Court has renewed a bitter, ideological struggle in the United States over abortion. Court observers say that as many as three Supreme Court justices may retire due to age or illness in the coming months or years. President Bush has indicated his willingness to nominate anti-abortion jurists, who may then form a new majority that could overturn the high court's 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

Since the President's Supreme Court nominees would require Senate approval, abortion rights advocate Elizabeth Cavendish is already trying to persuade Senators to her point of view. "We say, 'Have compassion for those women who would have an illegal abortion,'" says Ms. Cavendish, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America. "You don't want lower-income women, battered women, to be forced to carry unintended pregnancies to term or to self-abort. Think about the value of American freedom." Her organization plans a major public relations campaign against anti-abortion court nominees.

On the other side of the issue is Helen Alvare, a constitutional scholar at the Catholic University of America.

"An argument that you should take a life, a very innocent, very defenseless, very small, very unseen life in order to make someone else's human rights better is just doomed to failure," she says. "And it's a disgrace to feminism."

Ms. Alvare notes that the abortion issue has been the subject of debate across America for a long time. "[From] about the 1850's to the 1960's, almost all states forbade all abortions at the same time that the science became clear," she says. "In other words, it was a reaction to a medical and scientific discovery of something remarkable and new happening at the very beginning of the child's life inside the mother's body."

But Elizabeth Cavendish does not share the same historical perspective. She says that, during that century, many women had self-induced abortions or went to illegal abortion providers who had varying levels of medical competence. It was these experiences, she says, that led state legislatures in the 1950s and 60s to begin repealing laws against abortion.

"Major legal reform organizations recognized that anti-abortion laws needed reforming and a grass-roots movement was built as women were seeking freedom over their reproductive lives," says Ms. Cavendish. "There was a question of whether it would be safe, legal and dignified -- or whether it would remain illegal, horribly dangerous, and even deadly."

Helen Alvare argues that this account omits the impact of the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. "You can't fail to tie the call for permissive abortion laws to more sexual freedom for women and for men," she says. "Because babies are so closely tied to sex, [people who wanted sexual freedom] really couldn't have that without the ultimate backup of abortion."

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a right to privacy, which encompasses the right to an abortion. Elizabeth Cavendish of NARAL Pro-Choice America says women have come to depend on this right. "Women feel free to define their families for themselves, their careers for themselves," she says. "But that is all very precarious. There will, indeed, be a big fight."

One thing the two sides agree on, says Helen Alvare, is that the argument over abortion is not going to go away as a national issue.

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