Thursday, February 3, 2011

Landmark or Landmine: Roe v Wade

“I am committed to protecting this constitutional right,” President Obama said in a statement. “I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.” Mr. Obama said the 1973 Supreme Court ruling “affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.”

We’ll see how that commitment works.

The phrase that it “ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it” comes to mind whenever I consider landmark Supreme Court decisions, none more so than that of Roe v Wade. Whenever the 38-year-old case comes up, the next words to follow are “that legalized abortion.” Those three words express an often repeated opinion of what the Court ruled when it struck down Texas criminal abortion statutes as “…vague and over broadly infringing the plaintiffs' Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

What the ruling says is different than such a “that legalized abortion” modifier. It would be more accurate to say of Roe that “the unborn have never been recognized in the law.” In fact, it is exactly what Justice Harry Blackmun wrote. Roe is not about abortion.

Roe is about the right to privacy which, while not specifically articulated in the Bill of Rights, comes from a previous landmark decision, Griswold v Connecticut. In that 1965 case, the Court identified a constitutionally protected right to privacy, which the Court reasoned prohibited states from denying birth control to married couples. In that case the Court ruled that the Constitution protected a right to privacy by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As the Roe decision declares, “State criminal abortion laws, like those involved here, that except from criminality only a life-saving procedure on the mother's behalf without regard to the stage of her pregnancy and other interests involved violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy.”

It is not a carte blanche for the termination of pregnancy, however, as Justice Blackmun wrote.We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified, and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.”

The controversial nature of public opinion relating to abortion and to the Roe decision is polarized. The opposing sides try to be careful with their use of language, as in what they call themselves: Abortionists or Pro-Choice on one side and Anti-Abortionists or Pro-Life on the other. Both sides are highly politicized and their confrontations have a history of violence.

The prevailing view of the Pro-Choice side is characterized by organizations such as the National Abortion Federation. As a “professional association of abortion providers in North America,” the NAF says, “We believe that women should be trusted to make private medical decisions in consultation with their health care providers. NAF currently offers quality training and services to abortion providers and unbiased information and referral services to women.”

The more activist Pro-Life side is characterized by organizations such as the Pro-Life Action League, which organizes and participates in marches, such as the recent one in San Francisco. The League says, “We confront the abortionists and abortion promoters wherever they are. We picket and demonstrate outside abortion facilities, pro-abortion events, the offices of abortion organizations like NOW and Planned Parenthood and even abortionists' houses. We infiltrate their meetings and groups.”

Each side of the abortion issue has a different position on when life begins, at conception or later. It is an argument that has its roots in the 19th Century. But the Roe v Wade decision side steps that debate, leaving it outside of the rule of law.

“Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

If the debate is outside of the rule of law, it is not outside of the legislation of laws. The American Civil Liberties Union cautions that Congress is trying attempting to legislate around the Roe decision, “making access to abortion services harder to obtain for low-income women.” The ACLU says, “No woman plans to have an abortion, but that is the point of health insurance.” It contends, “That’s why the majority of plans currently include coverage for abortion care. Politicians should not be working to take away coverage that already exists for most women.”

While that may or may not be, the question becomes how legislators will respond to their constituencies and to public opinion. The group Priests for Life president, Father Frank Pavone, asserts that even after 38 years the public still does not understand what the ruling in Roe means.Perhaps it is more accurate to say our nation is beginning to awaken to the fact that Roe’s policy – imposed by a Court rather than voted on by the people’s representatives -- has never represented what the majority of Americans think about abortion.” Perhaps.

So, what is that thinking? Let us turn to Gallup where you too can look at the data. Two years after the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling “gave sweeping constitutional protection to abortion”, Gallup asked Americans to say whether they believe abortion should be "legal under any circumstances," "legal only under certain circumstances," or "illegal in all circumstances."

The survey results said, “In the most recent period, from 2005 to 2009, the majority of all age groups favored the middle "legal only under certain circumstances" position.” Gallup further observed that even though the topic of abortion is a contentious social issue, “in recent years, the generational distinctions have blurred.” Gallup asked about abortion, not about the right to privacy.

Given the mood swing of the country that put a new Republican majority in Congress with its avowed anti-abortion agenda, the President’s right to privacy commitment is either to a Constitutional landmark or to a political landmine.

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Originally published on Blogcritics, January 25, 2011

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