BOSTON. — By now there is a numbing sameness to these stories. A news bulletin comes out of the Supreme Court or a state legislature. Another restriction, like a twine of bittersweet, has been wrapped around the right to choose abortion.
In the newspaper and on television, adversaries appear in their usual postures. Pro-lifers talk about ''protecting the unborn.'' Pro-choicers talk about ''back-alley abortions.'' It all might have come from file footage.
Abortion-rights leaders, on the defensive these days, update sound bites saying how ''women will die.'' They recycle fund-raising letters bearing three-alarm messages. Ominous warnings are issued about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Coat hangers are printed on buttons as grim reminders of the bad old days.
Yet the week after the court decision is handed down or the legislation passes, the same number of women are getting abortions. It all begins to seem like a ritual. How do you know when there really is a wolf out there and what that wolf looks like?
This time, the scare comes from the bogs of Louisiana. The legislature a body consisting of 140 men and four women has passed the most stringent ban against abortion in the country. It makes exceptions only to save the life of a woman, or for rape and incest under severely restricted conditions. If the Supreme Court takes up this case, there will be no way to avoid a head-on confrontation with Roe.
But some times the attention given to bans, the focus on whether or not the court will overturn the 1973 decision, blind another reality. There isn't one wolf readying for the final kill. There is an entire pack, and they're already nibbling.
If Roe were overturned next year or the next, it wouldn't automatically outlaw abortion in the United States. A woman's rights would be, rather, what they were in 1972. A matter of geography. And of money.
An adult woman with money in her pocket would still be able to get an abortion -- somewhere. She could do what a young Louisiana woman did when her clinic was briefly closed down: She got into her car and drove 200 miles to Dallas.
The distance would be greater if she lived in Utah or Guam. She might need a wad of cash or a credit card. But there are at least 14 ''safe states'' with pro-choice governments to which a woman could escape if she was pregnant at the wrong time in the wrong place.
On the other hand, under today's increasingly shaky shelter of Roe, wolves abound in different forms.
In North Dakota, for example, the governor vetoed a ban much like Louisiana's. There were hurrahs all around. But there is only one clinic in his entire state. Just how much better off is a woman in North Dakota under Roe than she would be in Louisiana after Roe?
This is what we've seen in the last few years. A right doesn't have to be overturned. It can also be eroded. In some ways, we have already entered the post-Roe world.
Harassment more than the law has made access to medical care more difficult, particularly in rural areas. Picketing, violence, bomb threats have eaten away at rights.
So has the careful targeting of doctors. Targeting by the government gagged the doctors of the poor. The Supreme Court tied that gag in place. Targeting by legislatures like Louisiana which would penalize doctors with 10-year prison sentences has scared more than a few out of clinics.
There are other wolves, gnawing so discreetly that we don't always see their teeth. One law could if upheld make a woman notify her husband. Eighteen laws already make teen-agers get the consent of a parent or a judge.
If Roe were overturned, women would surely need a traveler's advisory and traveler's checks to find their way through the state laws. They would need an agent to tell them which state allows abortions for which reasons. A medical passport of sorts.
Nevertheless, in that unappealing future, women with money would have choices. So would their daughters, sisters, friends. Those who could least afford children could least afford abortions.
But even in the more palatable present, the young and those with empty purses are finding it harder to exercise what is still their constitutional right.
Who was it who said the rich get richer and the poor get children? Was that just an old saying? Or is it the newest public policy?
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.