Happy anniversary

The landmark Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade was 34 years ago today.

By Page Rockwell
Published January 23, 2007 12:13AM (EST)

Today marks the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling on Roe v. Wade, which found Texas laws criminalizing abortion unconstitutional because they infringe on the right to privacy, effectively invalidating abortion laws in 46 states. (For the court's opinion, go here.)

In the majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires. One's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one's thinking and conclusions about abortion.

"In addition, population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial overtones tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem."

Several decades later, this remains an apt summary of public sentiment. The ongoing debate about abortion remains fraught with vehement personal feelings on both sides, and even abortion-rights advocates mostly agree that the debate is morally complicated and the procedure shouldn't be undertaken lightly. Still, I see the anniversary of Roe as a happy anniversary for the U.S., marking the end of an era of widespread unsafe illegal abortion procedures, unnecessarily high maternal mortality rates and separate and unequal sets of reproductive health choices for affluent and poor women. Because social conservatives continue to chip away at women's reproductive freedoms and social support for family planning, abortion and contraception still aren't equally accessible to all women in the U.S., but the situation would be even bleaker without Roe.

To mark the anniversary, the New York Times Magazine ran a thought-provoking piece on the new thrust of the anti-choice movement: framing abortion as harmful to women. The "abortion hurts women" approach isn't new -- I started seeing it on billboards in rural parts of California several years ago, and anti-choice types gave it a test spin when promoting South Dakota's Referred Law 6 last year -- but trend watchers say it's gaining traction in anti-choice circles. There's scant evidence that abortion is generally hazardous to women, especially when you consider that the alternative -- childbirth -- also carries health risks and the risk of subsequent depression. And the paternalism of presenting abortion as a public-health danger is fairly obvious; writer Emily Bazelon likens the protectionist fervor to "the 19th-century diagnosis of female hysteria" and "the claim that women [lack] reliable judgment [which was] used to deny women the vote and the right to own property." But Bazelon also gets at a subtler point, that abortion makes an easier scapegoat than personal circumstances like "[an] unresolved past, a loutish boyfriend, money problems" or social problems like poverty and the lack of government and employer support for pregnant women and families. She summarizes, "Abortion-recovery counselors... could focus on why women don't have the material or social support they need to continue pregnancies they might not want to end. They could call for improving the circumstances of women's lives in order to reduce the number of abortions. Instead they are working to change laws to restrict and ban abortion." As we've noted before, our society would do well to reconsider what a "culture of life" should really look like.

Not surprisingly, President Bush doesn't seem to agree; he chose to commemorate the Roe anniversary by declaring the previous day, Sunday, Jan. 21, "National Sanctity of Human Life Day." The proclamation stated, "We are vigorously promoting parental notification laws, adoption, abstinence education, crisis pregnancy programs, and the vital work of faith-based groups... National Sanctity of Human Life Day serves as a reminder that we must value human life in all forms, not just those considered healthy, wanted, or convenient." If there's a classier way of saying "I could care less about whether all American children have responsible adults to raise them, roofs over their heads, nutritious food to eat and access to adequate medical care and education as long as they get born in the first place," I'm sure his office couldn't think of it.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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