America is a nation still divided by a woman's right to choose

Out of America: Forty years after Roe vs Wade made abortion legal, the issue is more contentious than ever

Share
Related Topics

Roe vs Wade? No it's not, as Bob Hope memorably quipped about Dan Quayle, a choice between two ways of crossing a river. It is the landmark ruling of the United States Supreme Court exactly 40 years ago that legalised abortion, a decision the court based on the constitutional promise of a citizen's right to privacy. And as anyone with the remotest interest in American politics will also be aware, the issue is today more divisive than ever.

On Friday, thousands of abortion opponents braved Washington's icy weather to take part in a March of Life on the Mall, to mark – or rather denounce – the ruling on its 40th anniversary. That rally came after an election campaign in which abortion helped to shape the outcome as rarely before.

Undoubtedly the Republicans' growing opposition to abortion cemented support among women for President Obama, a vital factor in his victory; arguably, too, abortion cost Republicans control of the Senate. Remember the remark of Todd Akin about how a woman's body could "shut down" in the case of a "legitimate" rape? Or Richard Mourdock's insistence that a pregnancy arising from rape was "the will of God"?

Messrs Akin and Mourdock were Republican candidates in the red states of Missouri and Indiana respectively, competing for seats the party was expected to win. Both lost. Yet their defeats also illustrate the great abortion paradox here. Americans favour a woman's basic right to end a pregnancy – but at the same time they oppose them.

Back in January 1973, the nine justices struck down the Texas law that made abortion a crime other than in cases of rape and incest, that was at the heart of Roe vs Wade. The margin was 7-2, remarkably clear cut by today's standards where many key court decisions are 5-4 squeakers.

And poll after poll since has shown broad and consistent support. In the most recent, by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal last week, as many as 70 per cent said they did not want the law overturned, a proportion if anything higher than a decade ago. Yet at the same time by a clear majority, 51 per cent to 40 per cent, Americans declare themselves in another poll to be pro-life rather than pro-choice. Thus today's endless argument over abortion, a war of attrition with no end in sight.

Since 1973, the court has revisited the abortion issue half a dozen times. In each instance it has left Roe vs Wade's central tenet intact, while chipping away at the edges: barring government employees from performing abortions, allowing states to impose restrictions on first-trimester abortions, and banning so-called "partial birth" abortions. And as the Supreme Court has chipped, many states – all Republican-run – have joined in with a vengeance.

Take Virginia, which last year sought to require women seeking an abortion to face an invasive and medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound examination. Public outcry forced that plan to be dropped, in favour of an external exam, the so-called "jelly on the belly" procedure. The state has also passed retroactive legislation requiring clinics, old as well as new, to conform to the same building standards as new hospitals. To comply, abortion clinics will have to spend a great deal of money on renovation. Or they will lose their licence – which, of course, is what the law's proponents were seeking.

In conservative South Dakota, a mountain of paperwork has been added to the already stressful abortion process. The mandatory waiting period has been increased to 72 hours from 24, while a patient must undergo counselling, including an explicit warning from her doctor that the abortion will "terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being". If that shames a woman into keeping her child, that is precisely what the law's supporters intend.

The social effects of Roe vs Wade are harder to quantify but surely profound. Fewer children have grown up in poverty and in single-parent households. Conceivably, the availability of abortion is linked to the drop in crime rates in the US since the mid-1990s – on the theory that some of these children who would otherwise have been born post-1973 would have been more likely to commit crimes.

But the war of attrition risks a return to the status quo ante. As always, money talks: better-off and better-educated women will be able to secure abortions easily while women who are poor and don't know their way around the system and its thickets of new restrictions will not.

Maybe the only hope of reversing the trend lies in a long-term change of attitude by a Republican party no longer able to afford the alienation of women, nor to be perceived as callous and indifferent to ordinary people. If so, things will have gone full circle. Until the late 1960s, Republicans were if anything more favourable to abortion rights than Democrats. Then Richard Nixon made his play for the "silent majority", including socially conservative Roman Catholic Democrats, a key electoral group in several northern swing states. By 1972, he was denouncing his liberal opponent George McGovern as a champion of "amnesty, abortion and acid". Battle was joined and, notwithstanding Roe vs Wade, has continued ever since. Bill Clinton ought to have resolved the issue, when he said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". Would that it were so simple.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'