Two sides of Roe: Activists weigh in on ruling’s past, present, future
Marking the 40th anniversary this week of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, The Washington Times asked leading advocates on both sides of the issue to discuss the ruling, the present state of the abortion debate and where American attitudes on abortion are heading in the coming years.
Jeanne Monahan is president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, which has organized the annual event in Washington to protest the Roe decision. In recent years, some 200,000 participants have joined the march to the Supreme Court.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice, which was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health. Mr. O’Brien is also executive editor of Conscience, a quarterly news journal for Catholic opinion on reproductive rights, sexuality and gender, feminism, church and state issues and U.S. politics.
Q: How would you describe the state of abortion politics in America 40 years after Roe v. Wade?
Ms. Monahan: As we commemorate this landmark case that legalized abortion in the country, we are certainly somber as we grieve the 55 million unique human lives that have been lost to abortion in the past four decades. Similarly, we strive to help women who regret their abortion find hope and healing.
We also have tremendous hope! We are winning in the court of public opinion, perhaps the most challenging court for one to ‘win’ in the United States. More specifically, we are winning with young people who are predominantly pro-life. We are also winning one state at a time, given the almost 200 pro-life bills passed in the states since 2010. So while it remains that abortion is the human rights issue of our time, I have much hope that the tide is changing, one young person and one state at a time.
Mr. O’Brien: It’s a shame that abortion, a personal choice, has become a political football for both Democrats and Republicans, but it’s clear which party dropped the ball in the last election. In the campaign, the Republican Party allowed itself to be associated with statements about ‘legitimate rape,’ mandatory invasive ultrasounds and attacks on contraception. These anti-choice stances came from individuals, yes, but they were also embedded in the party’s anti-choice platform. Some Americans came away with the impression that the Republican Party was waging a war on women, and this contributed to the Republicans’ failure to regain the White House and the Senate.
Immediately after the election, Republicans began a bit of soul-searching about whether or not the party should continue to align with extremists on choice issues. It’s about time, since the Republican Party has historically supported individual liberty and rejected government intrusion, and the attacks on choice are fundamentally inconsistent with those principles and values.
We hope that both Republicans and Democrats have learned that attacks on women’s autonomy don’t win votes — for the simple reason that women from both parties do have abortions, and want to know that the choice is there if they need it.
Q: In your view, what are the top two developments regarding abortion since Roe?
Ms. Monahan: First, the reality that abortion hurts women has developed significantly in the past four decades. Mother Teresa had a wonderful quote — to paraphrase: “Abortion is profoundly anti-woman. All of the mothers and half of the babies are its victims.” We’ve seen enormous amounts of research linking abortion to emotional suffering, in addition to the countless personal stories of women who profoundly regret an abortion decision. We have also been privy to research and real-life stories showing the physiological consequences of abortion for women — the worst obviously being death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over 450 women have died as a direct result of legal abortion in the last number of years in the United States. Chemical abortion, in particular, is very tough on women’s health. I’ll never forget speaking to a dad who lost his daughter to chemical abortion. It is fair to say on the whole that women are no longer buying into the myth that a so-called ‘right’ to abortion is good for them.
Second, the humanity of the baby has received much attention. Advances in science and technology (in particular, ultrasound) have only supported the reality that a ‘person is a person no matter how small’ (Dr. Seuss). Long gone is the erroneous claim that a developing baby is only a lifeless blob of tissue. We know that a baby’s heart beats around 22 days after conception, the baby is moving by 10 weeks, and that the baby can feel pain somewhere from 16 to 20 weeks.
Mr. O’Brien: There have been so many marvelous developments since Roe v. Wade that it’s difficult to select which advances for women are most important.
From a public health standpoint, legalizing abortion benefited thousands of families, because so many women’s lives were being lost every year to illegal and unsafe abortions. Even more women and their families would have been affected by the loss of fertility caused by unregulated and unsafe procedures. After Roe v. Wade, abortion came out of the back alleys and into professional settings. Today, a woman is 14 times more likely to die while giving birth than from complications due to an abortion.
Primacy of conscience is central for Catholics. But Americans with all value systems expect to make their own moral decisions, as well as have their own bodily integrity respected. Far too many people in other parts of the world don’t enjoy the freedom to make choices for themselves as we do in America.
Q: During President Obama’s second term, what activities or issues do you expect to take center stage? Is there something specific you expect him to do?
Ms. Monahan: Right now we are all focused on the health care law, in particular, the Department of Health and Human Services mandate, which includes abortion-inducing drugs. However, a number of other aspects of the health care law that could prove problematic for pro-lifers have yet to be rolled out, or are only beginning to be implemented. One such area is the state exchange health plans. I think we are going to have to keep vigilant watch over new regulations from HHS and the implementation of the health care law.
All pro-life Americans should continue to let their legislators know that they want them to be courageous on issues related to protecting and promoting the dignity of the human person, especially during this administration.
Mr. O’Brien: The political climate for choice is mixed — the sky is a little cloudy but it’s not falling in. Some of the clouds come from local restrictions on choice. In the states, unnecessary regulations placed on abortion providers are seriously undermining the exercise of reproductive rights and the delivery of women’s health care. In order for Roe not to be a hollow guarantee of rights, women must be able to access the care they need when they need it.
One of the most egregious problems in our current system is that women are routinely given inaccurate information in mandatory pre-abortion counseling. The materials required to be given to women by six states inaccurately portray possible fertility risks from the procedure. Doctors in five states are required to give false information about abortion leading to breast cancer. Ultimately, this tactic is an indication that the anti-abortion movement has failed its ultimate objective — overturning Roe.
Roe v. Wade is safe. But the circuitous efforts to undermine choice from the state level will win few real friends in either party. Both Republicans and Democrats believe in freedom and fairness and understand that a right — like the right to choose an abortion — should never be in name only.
Q: What lies ahead for the Roe v. Wade ruling in the foreseeable future, i.e., do you expect it to be retained as is, changed or repealed (and why?).
Ms. Monahan: In terms of a federal court ruling, much depends on what happens within theSupreme Court during the next four years. If President Obama has the opportunity to appoint one or two justices during this time, Roe v. Wade would become much more difficult to correct in the foreseeable future.
There are some pro-life organizations that believe Roe can be weakened and even defeated at the state level. Disagreements exist within the pro-life movement as to whether the state-level amendment would withstand federal scrutiny.
At the March for Life, our goal is to foster unity within the pro-life movement, to educate the masses and to encourage our legislators to advance pro-life laws.
Mr. O’Brien: There have been a lot of rallies against Roe in Washington, D.C. In many cases, there was an anti-choice president in the White House at the time. Anti-choice advocates did not manage to overturn Roe then, maybe because there is political recognition that a ban on abortion is neither practical nor just.
We anticipate some Supreme Court vacancies during President Obama’s second term, and we expect that he will nominate people who uphold the law. And yet groups like the U.S. bishops will continue to invest money and time to take away our rights, all the while knowing that Catholics in the pews don’t support them. A poll released by the Knights of Columbus in January revealed that 90 percent of Catholics reject the bishops’ hard-line, anti-choice position.
Q: Given the changing attitudes of younger Americans, what do you expect will be the country’s legal position on abortion 40 years from now?
Ms. Monahan: My strong hope is that the human rights abuse of abortion will be no more — but I pray that it doesn’t take another 40 years to bring it to an end. Also, while the legality of abortion is a huge part of this debate, it is only one part. We have millions of women who regret their abortion and need healing and hope. We have opportunity for positive legislation at the state and national level. Education about the truth of abortion is also critical — it significantly decreases the number of women seeking an abortion. All of these aspects, among others, impact a culture of life in the United States. And the March for Life plans to do everything possible to build a culture of life in the United States. So as we look to the next 40 years, we plan to work ourselves out of a job by building a culture of life one woman, one young person, one state at a time.
Mr. O’Brien: Younger Americans, more than two-thirds of people under 30, support choice. Millennials are more likely than the general public to say that at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions, and, in line with the views of Americans across age, racial, religious and political lines, they say it’s wrong for religious leaders to publicly pressure politicians about their stance on abortion. Given all that, I expect abortion will be legal 40 years from now, and I hope we’ll see an end to playing politics with women’s health.
This piece was originally published by the Washington Times.