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Is Legal Abortion in Jeopardy?

By Doug Trapp · February 12th, 2003 · Burning Questions
With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress and with steadily aging U.S. Supreme Court justices, is Roe vs. Wade in danger of being rolled back or seriously compromised?

Pro-life groups sprung up in the wake of the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and they've never stopped fighting to have it reversed. The 5-4 decision to legalize abortion was largely based on the 14th Amendment, which was adopted in 1866 to protect freed slaves.

Despite five Supreme Court appointments by Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. in the 1980s and 1990s, the verdict hasn't been reversed. Of course, neither president's party had control of both houses of Congress. With Republicans now in firm control, pro-life groups are pushing legislation to recognize the killing of the unborn as murder in an attempt to criminalize abortions.

But Jack M. Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale Law School, says that's not the way he'd attack Roe vs. Wade. Instead, he would push back the time it takes for waiting periods, cut off abortion funding where possible and end government support for helping women get abortions.

"It's definitely in jeopardy of being rolled back, but it's not in jeopardy of being overturned," he said. "The mind boggles at the number of ways you could cut back Roe. ... What good is the right to an abortion if you can't get one?"

The core principle of Roe vs.

Wade was upheld by a 5-4 vote as recently as 1992 in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. In that decision, however, the court allowed states to adopt certain restrictions on abortion such as a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, parental involvement and generally closer regulation of abortions involving viable fetuses as long as there are exceptions to protect the mother's health.

For pro-choice groups, these rulings signal a steady retreat from the abortion-on-demand promises of Roe.

"I'd say the bottom line is that, yes, Roe vs. Wade is in jeopardy, and it's already been eroded," said Elizabeth Cavendish, Legal Director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, perhaps the country's leading pro-choice organization.

"Over the years Ohio has passed virtually every restriction that the Supreme Court allows," said Sue Momeyer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood's Cincinnati region, adding that pro-life groups have scared away a lot of doctors from offering abortions.

Nationally, 87 percent of counties did not have an abortion provider in 2000, according to the Allen Guttmacher Institute, a non-partisan resource for abortion information. The national total fell 11 percent between 1992 and 2000.

In Ohio in 2000, 88 percent of its counties had no abortion provider; the total number of providers declined from 37 in 1996 to 35 in 2000. In Kentucky, 98 percent of its counties had no abortion providers in 2000. The number of providers fell from eight in 1996 to three in 2000.

NARAL estimates that 17 states, including Ohio, would immediately ban abortions if Roe vs. Wade was reversed. Two already have -- Louisiana and Utah have passed unenforceable laws that almost entirely ban abortions.

Today's mainstream media are speculating that one or two Supreme Court justices will retire before the 2004 elections. The oldest justice, 82-year-old John Paul Stevens, is firmly in the pro-choice camp, according to NARAL.

Fundamentally, pro-life groups base their beliefs in the Bible and the certainty that God abhors abortions. Do all religions agree with that assessment?

That topic will be discussed at 6 p.m. Wednesday at The Phoenix (812 Race St., downtown) with Daniel Maguire, Professor of Ethics in the Theology Department of Marquette University and author of Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions. For tickets for the lecture and/or dinner, contact Kristen Davis at 513-721-7635, ext. 228. Tickets are also available at the door.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.


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