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Roe v. Wade, The Next Twenty-Five Years: From Rear Guard to Avant-Garde

Advocates for women’s rights sense progress in the ongoing battle for better reproductive health care services.

By Frances Kissling
Winter 1998

What can one say about abortion that has not been said at least once over the last twenty-five years? Is there an American alive who is not bored with abortion “discourse,” does not flip the TV channel to Columbo reruns when the man with the tiny little feet and eight-week-old beating heart meets the woman ringing her hands over the fifteen-year-old pregnant girl with the abusive father? Hello? Is anyone listening? Or is abortion an issue whose time has passed?

Certainly today’s world differs dramatically from the world that ushered in by Roe v. Wade. Roe flowed from post-World War II prosperity and a 1970s sense that both we and our children would have better lives than our parents had. TheRoe decision was a product of a climate of societal and economic generosity that manifested itself in greater acceptance of civil rights for minorities and women. It was a time when the Pill was considered by most to be, by and large, a good and liberating thing, and human sexuality was beginning to be seen as related to love, commitment, and relationship—and not only or always in marriage or for procreation. Divorce, it was thought, was not the worst sin and shouldn’t be so difficult to obtain.

Infertility, if widely experienced, was not widely discussed. The first test tube baby was not yet conceived. Adoption was seen as a way to find parents for needy children, not children for needy couples. Women were real live people and fetuses were neither people nor patients. Adults focused on the suffering they saw. There was sympathy for women who seemed too often to have to choose secret, sometimes botched abortions, children they did not love no matter how hard they tried, or children they gave up for adoption and loved no matter how hard they tried not to.

To believe that there is a fundamental legal right to choose abortion is not the same as believing that there are no moral dilemmas worthy of public debate.

But since Roe, the climate of the country has become decidedly more conservative, and as a result the strategy and rhetoric of the prochoice movement has also changed and become defensive. Our judicial and legislative approach has been a largely successful, if rear-guard effort. Abortion is still legal, if highly regulated. Even the fractured Supreme Court of 1992 declared in the Casey decision that abortion is a right that women have come to depend on and should be able to continue to depend upon. Indications are that it will continue to be legal.

Is it not then time, are we not safe enough, to consider a more visionary and avant garde strategy for the future? Could we consider an attempt to regain the moral edge that permeated the abortion rights movement of the pre-Roe years? How do we lead the way out of the seemingly endless abortion wars?

Two things might help. First, the values that informed our early commitment to women’s right to make the abortion decision are as unrecognized as they were twenty-five years ago. They must be expressed, explained and advocated as clearly and unequivocally as possible. Our post-Roe defensive posture has obscured our basic values, indeed, has undercut them. For example, today we no longer talk about rights, especially the right to make a mistake. We try to co-opt conservatives by stressing their buzz words—responsibility, family, community. And in the debate about “partial birth” abortions, the women’s rights argument has been rarely articulated. Instead we talk about women’s health and doctors’ rights.

Most of us worked for abortion rights because we had a deep and uncompromising commitment to the social recognition of women’s moral capacity to make the most controversial and complex life decisions we could imagine. We believed that women had the right to decide when, whether, and how to bring new life into the world. We believed this right was so fundamental that it protected even decisions that others considered wrong, morally reprehensible or irresponsible. We believed that the absence of this recognition of women’s capacity to make moral decisions harmed women, and could be directly traced to the patriarchal structures of our society. Women’s life-giving power is as threatening as ever and efforts to control it are common—from forced caesarians to imprisonment for unacceptable behavior during pregnancy. Women who have children and careers are criticized. Anti-feminist feminists are the darlings of the media. These trends will settle into unquestioned standards if we do not once again frame the abortion debate in feminist and women’s rights values.

At the same time we must lead a more meaningful public conversation about the morality of abortion. To believe that there is a fundamental legal right to choose abortion is not the same as believing that there are no moral dilemmas worthy of public debate. We must move from the hard cases (rape, incest, fetal abnormality) to the hard questions, offering answers where possible and acknowledging doubt where it exists. The space between what is legal and what is right needs to be filled. It is not, for example, enough for us to say that teenagers are autonomous beings who get to decide whether to abort or have a child. It is not enough to glibly respond to proponents of parental notification laws that most teens tell their parents when they are pregnant. At some point we need to grapple with the fact that many teens who do not have abusive parents are afraid to talk to their parents about a pregnancy and could be helped to do so. Would this not be a desirable outcome?

There are many other questions that beg for prochoice response. What is the moral significance of developing life? Does that significance change over time? Is viability a significant threshold? Are there better and worse reasons for abortion? Are some arguments in defense of abortion morally dubious? Why, in those late-term procedures dubbed “partial birth” abortions is it better to kill the fetus before delivery rather than, as our opponents say, “give it a chance” at survival, however fragile and unlikely. The area of moral uncertainty can be decidedly uncomfortable.

For some, hard questions such as these are deeply threatening to the effort to keep abortion safe and legal. For others, clear expression of the seemingly unpopular values that undergird Roe are as threatening. But I am convinced that visionary leadership involves addressing both, and visionary leadership is what we desperately need.