IN SOME WAYS it changed everything. Twenty-five years after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, one-fourth of all healthy pregnancies in America end in abortion. Since Jan. 22, 1973, abortion has been lawful at any stage of pregnancy for any reason. And not just lawful. By decree of the Supreme Court, abortion is constitutionally protected. No legislature may impose more than trivial restrictions on what was once regarded as a shocking and tragic practice: the deliberate destruction of life in the womb.
The Supreme Court's abortion decision on Jan. 22, 1973, "liberated" women, but it was men who were set free.
Roe turned abortion into a national institution. Roughly 1.5 million unborn American infants are aborted every year — nearly 35 million since 1973. Usually the only thing that went wrong was the mother's judgment.
A generation has grown up in the knowledge that you can always get an abortion if you want one, and would object fiercely if that freedom were threatened. When pollsters ask whether the decisions about abortion should be entrusted to a woman and her doctor (i.e., not to the state), a majority of respondents consistently answers yes. When asked if they favor "a constitutional amendment to ban abortions," the bulk of respondents always say no.
And yet in some ways, Roe changed nothing. In most cases most of the time, most of us think abortion is wrong — and have all along. In a new monograph, "Public Opinion About Abortion," survey researchers Everett Carll Ladd and Karlyn Bowman pull together years of polling data to demonstrate the public's obstinate split personality: Americans don't want to ban abortion outright — but they don't like it, either.
Should a married woman, for example, be allowed to get an abortion because she doesn't want any more children? The National Opinion Research Center has been polling on that question for 25 years, and the results have scarcely budged: 57 percent said no in 1972, 51 percent said no in 1996. Should abortion be legal if the woman is unwed and doesn't want to marry the father? 1972 results: 53 percent opposed. 1996 results: 53 percent opposed.
According to Gallup, which has also tested the issue for decades, the proportion of Americans who think abortion should always be legal is 22 percent (it was 21 in 1975), while those who say it should never be legal amount to only 15 percent (down from 22.) But most Americans — 61 percent today, up from 54 percent in 1975 — say abortion should be allowed "only under certain circumstances."
Parental consent for minors? A 24-hour waiting period? Laws requiring doctors to inform pregnant women of abortion alternatives? Mandatory notification of husbands before wives can abort? Americans support them all — overwhelmingly.
A generation under Roe may not have noticeably altered the public's self-contradicting attitudes on this subject. But easy abortion has certainly altered American life.
For a start, it has corrupted romance and sexuality. In the ancient times before Roe, the price of an unwanted pregnancy could be terrifyingly high. That gave unmarried women a powerful incentive to be careful — to reserve themselves for men whom they knew to be worthy. Sometimes worthiness could be proven only by walking down a church aisle; if not that, it often required at least courtship, love, and commitment.
But after Roe, an unwanted pregnancy became little more than a nuisance. To undo it, you had only to call an abortionist. Why be careful? Why hold back? There was no longer a need to wait for that aisle walk — or even for commitment.
Women were "liberated." But it was men who were set free. Getting a girl pregnant was no big deal: Give her $100, and let her get an abortion. For men who wanted sex without strings, without having to make promises, without having to go through the rituals of romance, Roe was a godsend. And if she has the baby? Hey, that's her problem. She could have gotten an abortion.
"In the war between the sexes," the editors of National Review write this week, "abortion tilts the playing field toward predatory males, giving them another excuse for abandoning their offspring: She chose to carry the child; let her pay for her choice. Our law now says, in effect, that fatherhood has no meaning, and we are shocked that some men have learned that lesson too well."
And some women never learn. Repeat abortions are more than 40 percent of the total.
The Roe regime has damaged the Democratic Party, by driving pro-lifers from its table. It has damaged our politics, by enforcing a policy — abortion-on-demand — that few Americans support. It has damaged liberalism, by making it the ally of those who threaten the weakest "community" of all.
But above all, Roe has damaged women. As the abortion culture spread, so did unwed motherhood, domestic violence, woman-hating music, and divorce. Why blame Roe? Because Roe degraded pregnancy, changing it from an awesome event with grave consequences to a mere hassle, easily gotten rid of. It called forth a vast industry whose single purpose is to nullify something unique to women: the growth of life in the womb. In any culture that makes child-bearing cheap, child-bearers will be treated cheaply, too.
Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment, put it succinctly 75 years ago: "Abortion," she said, "is the ultimate exploitation of women."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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