On Jan. 23, 1973, the day after the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, the New York Times ran this headline: "Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue." That was 32 years ago, and if the thousands who rallied yesterday in downtown Washington for the annual March for Life are any indication, then perhaps the NYT would now consider running a correction.
"Settled" is how many pro-choicers considered the issue then -- and still do -- when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For example, imagine if in 1986 -- 32 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, ending public school segregation -- there was still a strong and growing segregationist movement in the United States. Imagine if segregationists were being elected to Congress, or that a segregationist held the White House. Rather, in a relatively short time, the sweeping changes decided by Brown came to be seen by the public as both constitutionally and morally right. The same cannot be said of Roe, a fact that says more about the decision than pro-choicers would care to admit.
If anything, Roe succeeded only in forming a coalition of otherwise politically disinterested voters that has significantly strengthened the Republican Party. For Democrats, Roe has become a political liability: If they aren't sufficiently pro-Roe, their base will ignore them; yet if they are, they cannot hope to make inroads into red states. This has led to the untenable and absurd position held by many Democrats (and a few blue-state Republicans), who say that they are personally against abortion, but in favor of Roe.
This anniversary also marks what could be a contentious few years on the fate of Roe. Other than the president, the second most-watched person at the inauguration ceremony on Thursday was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has cancer. Since removing himself from public view last year, the health of Justice Rehnquist has been widely speculated. We wish we could say that this was solely for his own well being. Other than Justice Rehnquist, there are at least three more justices facing retirement in the not-distant future: John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg are all over the age of 70. The two most pro-life justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, are being eyed to replace Justice Rehnquist as chief justice.
One justice retirement is always a big political event, but with a potential of four during Mr. Bush's second term, the pro-life marchers had an extra reason to be excited yesterday. Far from ever being "settled," they know, as do the pro-choicers, that Roe was never more in doubt.