First of three parts
Forty years ago, a poor, anonymous, pregnant woman called “Jane Roe” stepped forward to attack a Texas state law banning abortion.
She and her attorneys succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalized a woman’s right to abortion, overturned countless state laws and unleashed a cultural and political war so enduring that weeks after abortion supporters triumphantly swept pro-choice President Obama into a second term of office, Catholic prelate Donald W. Wuerl felt compelled to publicly lament, “What is the spiritual climate in our country that allows this culture of death to prevail?”
More than 1 million abortions are performed each year in the United States, and an estimated total of 54 million pregnancies have been terminated since 1973, according to Guttmacher Institute data. But the moral and political questions surrounding the issue remain as unsettled in 2013 as they were 40 years ago Tuesday, when the Supreme Court issued its 7-2 decision.
Abortion wars are under way in court and state legislatures over the “Obamacare” health care reform, and record numbers of abortion-regulating measures have been enacted at the state level in the past two years.
Abortion advocacy is also well-developed. In recognition of Roe’s 40th anniversary, the pro-choice Advocates for Youth organization is championing the finding that about 30 percent of American women will have an abortion by age 45. It launched the “1 in 3” book and a campaign to tell women’s stories about their abortions.
In contrast, the Silent No More Awareness Campaign is continuing its efforts to help women talk about the regrets they feel over their abortions, while Feminists for Life tells young women that they “deserve better than abortion.”
The annual March for Life protest, moved this year to Friday because of Mr. Obama’s inauguration ceremonies this week, remains one of the largest annual political protests staged on the streets of Washington, drawing marchers from across the country.
Although the abortion wars show no signs of easing, there are signs that the terrain on which the battles are being fought has shifted.
Prominent abortion rights advocacy groups have signaled that they will steer away from the “pro-choice” label.
“A growing number of Americans no longer identify with the ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ labels that they believe box them in,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Instead of putting people in one category or another, we should respect the decisions women and their families make,” she said, releasing a video called “Not in Her Shoes,” which urges Americans to start talking about abortion in a way “that doesn’t divide you, but is based on mutual respect and empathy.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America, with new President Ilyse Hogue, has introduced a “Choice Out Loud” campaign to expand the discussions.
“As a new generation of young people who support a woman’s right to control her body and her life joins our ranks, the labels we use matter less,” wrote Tarek Rizk, the group’s communications director.
Pro-life leaders said they are not abandoning their brand.
“We will remain pro-life regardless of what the other side wants to call themselves,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee.
Nobody is talking about dropping “life” — it’s such a strong message, said Charmaine Yoest, president and chief executive of Americans United for Life. Moreover, she said, if people try to switch to talking about abortion rights and “women’s health,” “I say, ‘Bring it on.’ I would welcome a discussion about women’s health.”
In the 40 years since the Jan. 22, 1973, ruling in Roe v. Wade, many milestones have been reached.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of U.S. abortion clinics and legal abortions soared.
Abortion became a de facto “litmus test” for political candidates.
“A woman’s right to choose” became a household phrase, and abortion rights supporters fiercely defended their views in courts and political arenas.
For years, a majority of Americans declared themselves pro-choice, according to the Gallup Poll.
Over time, pro-life forces found their voices, too.
The National Right to Life Committee and the annual March for Life were created after the Supreme Court ruling.
Pro-life members of Congress acted quickly to block taxpayer funding of abortion by passing the Hyde Amendment, named for the late Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican.
The popular argument that abortion just removed a “blob of tissue” was undermined by technologies showing fetal development and “a beating heart” by the 22nd day of pregnancy. Abortionist turned pro-lifer Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s 1984 film, “Silent Scream,” introduced the concepts of fetal awareness and distress during abortion.
Even “Jane Roe” switched sides: In 1995, Norma McCorvey announced that she had become a pro-life Christian.
The battles grew uglier in the 1990s as several abortion providers were fatally shot near their clinics or homes. As recently as 2009, abortion practitioner Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his Kansas church.
Lawmakers reacted by creating “buffer zones” around clinics. Law enforcement officials brought justice to the killers, including clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, who evaded police for five years.
Since 2000, nonsurgical abortion methods, usually pills, were introduced to terminate early pregnancies.
These methods have given rise to “telemedicine” abortions, in which clinics use webcams to permit off-site doctors to counsel women and give them access to abortion pills. Because of telemedicine, the abortion industry is retaining doctors and serving rural clients.
Pro-life forces have responded by flooding most states with laws regulating abortions and clinics. Although some of these laws have been overturned or blocked in court, many states are curtailing abortions past 20 weeks because of a belief that fetuses can feel pain at that stage of gestation.
Public attitudes also have shifted, and the pro-choice majorities of the past are steadily receding.
Last year, a record-low 41 percent of Americans identified themselves as pro-choice, according to the Gallup Poll, a significant drop from 1996, when 56 percent of Americans told Gallup they were pro-choice.
However, the national ambivalence about the choice between unlimited legal abortion and a blanket legal ban remains deep. Polls suggest that the true majority remains in support of legal abortion under certain circumstances: Last year, the plurality view (39 percent) was for “legal in only a few circumstances.”
The rest of the Gallup respondents chose “legal under any circumstances” (25 percent), “illegal under all circumstances” (20 percent), “legal under most circumstances” (13 percent) or no opinion.
A recent Planned Parenthood poll of voters found that many people who say they are pro-life “also believe that women should have access to safe and legal abortion,” Ms. Richards said, adding that this was part of the rationale to step away from the “choice” and “life” labels.
“It’s a complicated topic and one in which labels don’t reflect the complexity,” she said.
But pro-life leaders said they will press forward and work closely with lawmakers in at least 39 states to enact more abortion laws, especially those to regulate clinics and “defund” abortion.
“Despite the fact that we saw a loss with the re-election of the most pro-abortion president we’ve ever seen, the pro-life movement right now is really, really gaining ground and developing momentum,” said Ms. Yoest. “We are really energized right now.”