PATRICIA IRELAND holds up a map of the United States, about 20 of
the states colored in black, and declares defiantly to the assembled
"These are the states Newsweek predicted would likely restrict
abortion after the Webster decision."
"And this," continues the executive vice-president of the
National Organization for Women (NOW), holding up a different map,
"is what has actually happened!"
Only three states are blackened. A cheer goes up among the
largely young, female crowd, gathered for a NOW conference on
Indeed, since the Supreme Court's July 1989 ruling in Webster v.
Reproductive Health Services, which paved the way for states to
limit access to abortion, only Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and
West Virginia - plus the US Pacific island of Guam - have signed new
restrictions into law.
This is not for lack of trying. Since Webster, more than 400
pieces of abortion-related legislation - four-fifths of it
anti-abortion - have been introduced in 41 states.
But with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, an
anti-abortion White House, an anti-abortion US House of
Representatives, and an ambivalent American public, it may be only a
matter of time before many of the states considered likely to
restrict abortion do so.
In the past year, both Idaho and Louisiana passed laws
criminalizing most abortions, only to see them vetoed by the state's
traditionally anti-abortion governors for being too restrictive. But
anti-abortion advocates plan to try again next year.
Abortion-rights leaders attribute their success so far in staving
off anti-abortion legislation to two key factors: A reinvigoration
of their movement, sparked by the fear that the Supreme Court had
now begun to "chip away" at the broad abortion rights established by
its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling; and squeamishness among lawmakers about
voting on this most divisive of issues in an election year. Many
state legislatures decided to put the matter off until 1991.
"We expected a bad year, but it didn't materialize," says NOW
president Molly Yard. "Am I worried that our side will become
complacent? You bet. But people have to understand that all the
legislation that was killed will be reintroduced in just a couple of
In the long run, analysts of abortion politics see the US looking
increasingly like a patchwork quilt, with abortion virtually banned
in some states and protected in others. As in the pre-Roe days,
women with money will always be able to fly someplace to have an
abortion; women with lesser means will not.
Right-to-lifers acknowledge that Webster has galvanized the
opposition. But they argue that misperceptions - aided by what they
see as a predominantly pro-choice media - have clouded the picture.
"As a result of the pro-abortion awakening, there's an impression
that the pro-abortion people are winning and pro-life is losing,"
says Burke Balch, who handles state legislative strategy for the
National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).
Mr. Balch argues that in state legislative races, the pro-choice
movement has won more elections where abortion was an issue than it
has lost - a claim made with equal assertiveness by abortion-rights
Further, Balch says, the four pieces of pro-life legislation
signed into law since Webster are the most in any year since Roe v.
Wade. Media coverage - like the Newsweek article touted by NOW's Ms. …