Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Is There Life after Roe V. Wade?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Is There Life after Roe V. Wade?

Article excerpt

Is There Life After Roe v. Wade?

It has been sixteen years since the landmark case Roe v. Wade was decided by a majority vote of the United States Supreme Court.[1] Sixteen years is enough time for humans and their laws to be conceived, embodied, and grow to maturity, but Roe still threatens to abort. In fact, by the time this article appears, it may have been overturned by a new decision that vitiates its main provisions.[2] Is there any way of saving its life? Is its life worth saving?

"Pro-life" activists would probably answer both questions negatively, and "pro-choice" activists would probably answer them affirmatively. For each side the answer to the second question is likely to be more definitive. Those whose views on the legality or morality of abortion are somewhere between absolute permissiveness and absolute condemnation, a position held by the majority of the American people,[3] may look for ways of saving what seems worth saving of Roe.

Why has the debate raged on without abatement for so long? Is it possible to find some areas of agreement that dissidents on the issue might acknowledge? While addressing these questions, I will also briefly sketch my own views on possible changes in Roe and the morality of abortion.

The Long Debate

Laws often have a settling as well as regulative influence on individuals. For example, legal enactments such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the vote eventually became settled opinion in American consciousness despite initial controversies. One might have thought, therefore, that by now the cool rationale of the Roe decision in 1973 would have quelled the heat of public debate about abortion. Instead, the heat has escalated from fiery words to clinic bombings.

Intransigence on opposite sides of the issue, coupled with misleading and emotionally charged rhetoric, are partly to blame for prolongation of the controversy. Kristin Luker's account of the differences between "pro-life" and "pro-choice" activists suggests that both groups are basically closed to reconsideration of their positions.[4] For the most part, the rhetoric of abortion aims at different targets: "pro-lifers" focus on abortions for trivial reasons, performed even when the fetus is well-developed; "pro-choice" proponents tend to discuss abortions undertaken early for compelling reasons such as rape, or threat to a woman's health or life. One side refers to embryos as babies, and abortions as (therefore?) murder; the other describes a second trimester fetus as a blob of cells, and compares abortion to removal of a wart or tumor. The phrase "abortion on demand" is used prevalently to describe the current legal status of abortion; yet the text of the Roe ruling fails to support that interpretation.[5]

Beyond simplistic rhetoric and intransigence, thoughtful, well-developed arguments and openness to further consideration have helped to keep the debate constructively alive.[6] Increased knowledge of fetal development and advances in neonatology, along with the incidence of infertility and shortage of adoptable babies, have caused some to wane in their initial enthusiasm for Roe. Those whose main concern in legalizing safe abortions was to promote the health of poor women may be comforted by the reduction in morbidity and mortality related to abortions, but disturbed by the overall increase-in the number of abortions performed.

Complexities of the Issue

Fortunately or unfortunately, I cannot honestly align myself with either "pro-choice" or "pro-life" activists.[7] Either side betrays, to me, the enormous complexity of the issue. This complexity is in part a function of the following features associated with abortion decisions: duration of gestation, circumstances of conception, age and competence of the pregnant woman health status of the fetus, and health status of the pregnant woman. …

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