Roe v Wade: After 40 years, deep divide is legacy

By David Crary

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 19 2013 11:23 p.m. MST

"If you know some women, you know a woman who's had abortion," said Dr. Anne Davis, who is medical director for Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health and provides abortions as part of her practice in New York City.

"But you do not see women talking about their abortions," Davis said. "They do what they need to do and move on. I can't blame people for that."

Davis, who learned abortion techniques during her residency at the University of Washington in the mid-'90s, said the procedure has become increasingly safe — notably with the advent of abortions via medication. She expressed dismay at the spate of restrictive laws that she and many of her fellow physicians view as ill-founded.

"Initially, we'd say, 'That's ridiculous' — and now we're stuck with them," she said.

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.

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.

Asked about Ginsburg's musings, Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood said the Roe ruling was critically needed to curb unsafe abortions in states where the procedure was outlawed.

"Women were paying the price with their lives," she said.

However, Carter Snead, a Notre Dame law professor who has studied abortion and bioethics, said Blackmun's opinion was wrong to dismantle state anti-abortion laws so sweepingly.

"One key virtue of democracy is that, win or lose, the outcomes are generally seen as legitimate because all of the competing sides have had their say," Snead said in an email. "In Roe, the court short-circuited this process entirely, and handed a near total victory to one side of a bitterly contested question on the gravest of matters."

Snead said abortion opponents have an enduringly compelling argument — "that the smallest, weakest, and most unwanted nevertheless have a claim on us." But he said this argument can't be translated into public policy without a change in the Supreme Court's makeup.

Looking ahead, there's no clear path toward an easing of the debate. Some activists and politicians say common ground could be found in a broad new campaign to curtail unintended pregnancies, but many anti-abortion leaders have shown little interest in this.

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