Abortion is the unresolved issue in American politics. The U.S. Supreme Court thought it settled the issue with its Roe v. Wade decision in 1972, but lawsuits questioning the specifics of how a woman can terminate a pregnancy continue to flood the dockets of lower courts across the nation. Occasionally a case still winds up before the high court as well. Lives, black and white, matter, and issues of life and death carry profound moral significance that continue to challenge judges. Conscience is innate, not a creation of the state.
The Supreme Court tipped the scales slightly in favor of abortion proponents Monday when it declined to take up an appeal of a North Carolina law, blocked by a lower court, that required physicians to perform ultrasound tests and to describe the unborn child to women seeking abortions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit had found the state to violate the First Amendment, by compelling doctors to “commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient … This compelled speech, even though it is a regulation of the medical profession, is ideological in intent and in kind.”
Twenty-four other states require doctors to either perform or offer ultrasound tests prior to abortion, and four more states require doctors to explain the ultrasound image to a patient who requests it. The decision in the North Carolina case does not jeopardize laws in those states.
Abortion backers suffered a setback last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld a Texas law that requires abortion clinics to meet the same strict health and safety standards as “ambulatory” surgical clinics. Lawyers for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas argue in response that only eight abortion centers in the state are likely to meet the new requirements. Horror stories, like the case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist convicted in 2013 of murdering three infants born alive, are rare. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to take seriously the argument that abortion is necessary to preserve women’s health when abortion advocates oppose rules that require abortionists to meet the same level of surgical competence and care as, say, gastroenterologists who perform colonoscopies.
Public opinion on the abortion issue continues to change. A poll published last week by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of the public now say abortion should be legal all or most of the time and 43 percent say it should be against the law all or most of the time. And opinion has shifted dramatically in various regions of the country. Support for abortion in the south-central states has declined from 52 percent in 1995 to 40 percent in 2012. Approval in the New England states grew from 70 percent to 75 percent during this period.
Public approval of common-sense restrictions, like higher safety standards and informed-consent laws, has increased. Fifteen states enacted 26 restrictions on the procedure in 2014. At the federal level, a 20-week abortion ban bill, introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, all candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, demonstrates growing pro-life momentum in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Two generations of Americans have wrestled with their doubts and fears about the morality of taking the lives of the unborn, demonstrating that it is not merely a question of law, but of conscience.