Roe vs. Wade: Thirty Years Later

Jan 23, 2003 12:00 PM EST

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision that overturned numerous state laws and legalized most abortion nationwide.

Despite the fierce protests of hard-core anti-abortion activists, and the equally fierce rebuttals of hard-core supporters of legal abortion, little moral debate about abortion actually occurs in this country anymore.

The frontiers have moved elsewhere, to such issues as cloning and stem cells. Abortion is a taken-for-granted fact of American life -- and of life in every advanced industrialized country.

This was not exactly what Justice Blackmun and the majority of the Supreme Court had in mind when they offered their ruling in 1973.

It is sadly quaint to read this decision after three decades, for it exhibited a concern to take into account the moral status and rights both of pregnant women and of the children they carry that one hears little of today. Though in Roe vs. Wade the balance tilted decisively toward the pregnant woman, even this relatively weak concern for the rights of the developing child has by now been almost entirely lost in a society of abortion on demand.

And, ironically, as an important study by Frederica Mathewes-Green has shown, the decision helped to create a culture in which women themselves frequently "choose" abortion not of their own accord but under intense pressure from powerful people in their lives.

The majority opinion established an essentially arbitrary trimester model. In the first trimester, the pregnant woman had an unrestricted right to choose abortion in consultation with her physician. In the second trimester, on the basis of the claim that abortion at this stage posed a greater threat to the woman's health than if performed earlier, states were permitted to regulate abortion.

In the final trimester, from 26 to 40 weeks, the balance finally shifted decisively in the direction of the developing child. The state now had an interest in protecting the "potential life" of the fetus that was great enough to warrant severe restrictions on abortion. The court held that even in this period, however, abortions must be available if necessary to save the life of the mother.

Despite numerous challenges over these last three decades, this decision remains the foundation of current American abortion law.

The social world in which Roe vs. Wade was written has by now passed from the scene. I'm not just talking about the swinging 1960s and '70s, with their "free love" sexual revolution that helped to intensify the demand for abortion in our society. I am also talking about the health care delivery environment in which that decision was written.

Imagine this: Roe vs. Wade envisioned a situation in which a pregnant woman has a trusting relationship with a primary care physician with whom she can discuss her various options. This physician is implicitly viewed as a caring individual who will represent concern for the woman, for the child she is carrying, and for the moral issues at stake.

Guided by such physicians, women would be able to make thoughtful decisions about abortion, which would be safe, legal and rare.

This is not exactly how it turned out. Balanced reflection by both a woman and her doctor that would consider the rights of all parties now looks like a pipe dream. What we actually have in far too many cases is a woman on her own -- often under enormous pressure from an angry or abusive boyfriend or family -- driving down the interstate to an abortion clinic where an anonymous doctor she will never see again provides the abortion she thinks she wants but often comes to regret very deeply.

And now, of course, the development of the so-called RU-486 abortion pills for private use by women has set the stage for eliminating the physician entirely from the equation, except perhaps as a mere prescription-writer.

Roe vs. Wade makes for a classic example of the iron law of unintended consequences. A law intended to provide compassionate relief to a small percentage of pregnant women in crisis became the license that authorized the ending of any pregnancy on demand, whether or not the decision was really the free choice of the woman, or in her best interests -- let alone in the best interests of the father of the child, or especially the child itself.

We may face new moral challenges today, but abortion on demand remains one of the most disastrous features of the culture in which we live.

By Albert H. Lee
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