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

Marketing & Commnunications Executive, London

£30000 - £34000 per annum: Charter Selection: This highly successful organisat...

C# .NET Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript HTML, CSS) Finance

£60000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Develo...

MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh-£260/day

£230 - £260 per day + competitive: Orgtel: MI Analyst-Reporting-Bank-Edinburgh...

Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS, Crystal rep

£25000 - £30000 per annum + bonus+benefits+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: The Hitch on Americans, literature, liberal intervention and language

John Rentoul
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment