Thursday, October 28, 2004

Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s hospitalization just a week before the presidential election may serve as the needed catalyst for the presidential candidates to engage in a lively debate about their respective visions for the U.S. Supreme Court over the next four years, a key issue that has been lightly touched upon but hardly debated. After all, whoever wins on Tuesday (or whenever the final results come in) will likely appoint at least two — and possibly three or four — justices to the high court.

When voters cast their ballots next week, one hopes they realize that whatever the important differences between the two candidates on executing war, battling terrorism and protecting American jobs, there is just as much — if not more — fundamental disagreement on the contentious issue that pervades all discussion of Supreme Court retirements: abortion.

President Bush talks regularly about creating a “culture of life” in America and has a record to show he’s not afraid to act, having signed into law more pro-life legislation than any other president since the passage of Roe v. Wade. About this conviction, he should not fret. Recent polls reveal that 61 percent of Americans favor strict limitations on the abortion license (36 percent thinking abortion should be permitted only in cases of rape, incest or to safeguard the life of the mother, with 25 percent favoring a complete ban). On the other hand, only 22 percent of Americans believe — with Sen. John Kerry — that the status quo should be maintained, that is, that abortion should be permitted at any time during the pregnancy, for any reason.

Despite what the mainstream media would have voters believe about abortion (disingenuously discussing Roe v. Wade as if it allowed only first-trimester abortions), Mr. Kerry is not in good company. Mr. Kerry has been a stalwart advocate of abortion rights during his tenure in the Senate, numbering himself among only a small minority of senators who voted against the widely popular ban on partial-birth abortion. Despite Mr. Kerry’s attempt to have it both ways (“I believe life begins at conception but support a women’s right to choose”), his ardently pro-abortion voting record reveals that Mr. Kerry views abortion as an untrammeled good — one that ought to be funded by federal taxpayer dollars — and a necessary, perhaps the necessary, precondition to women’s well-being and equality.

But if more than three decades of abortion have taught us anything, they have taught us that abortion has not been the boon to women that stalwart supporters like Mr. Kerry have argued. The majority of Americans are now largely cognizant of the ill effects abortion has had on women: A Wirthlin Worldwide poll just reported that 61 percent of respondents said that abortion is “almost always bad” for women. When nearly everyone knows someone who has had an abortion (since one in four women have), it is telling that such a large majority has come to regard abortion as anything but the minor surgery abortion advocates claim it to be.

Abortion has had a negative impact upon women’s health. Women who have had abortions suffer an increased risk of depression and suicide — the risk of death from suicide is six times higher when compared with women who have given birth. Induced abortion increases the risk of placenta previa in subsequent pregnancies by 50 percent and doubles the risk of pre-term birth in later pregnancies. Though still the subject of intense debate, epidemiological studies as well as breast physiology suggest a causal link between induced abortion and breast cancer independent of the delay of a first full term pregnancy.

It’s not just women’s health that has been affected. Abortion has been culturally degrading to women as well. The early American feminists, who fought for the right to vote and fair treatment in the workplace, would have been appalled at the thought of celebrating abortion as the symbol of women’s freedom and equality. The suffragettes understood that the availability and prevalence of abortion meant that men, incapable of pregnancy, would continue to be the principal — and so the dictatorial — power in society. No wonder that Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment of 1923, called abortion “the ultimate exploitation of women.”

Mr. Kerry’s refusal to oppose restrictions on the barbaric practice of partial birth abortion as well as his opposition to common sense efforts to establish parental consent is way out of step with the electorate’s view of abortion. On this issue, like much else, Mr. Kerry is sitting out there on the “left bank” of our politics — in this case alongside the grizzled feminists who refuse to understand what women today think and what we want.

Erika Bachiochi is editor of and a contributor to “The Cost of Choice: Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion.”

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