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

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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Members of the House of Lords gather for the state opening of Parliament  

Peer pressure: The nobles in the Lords should know when to go

Jane Merrick
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, and the subject of the spoof Sony film  

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Joan Smith
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick