Fallout from Supreme Court Rulings BODY COUNT RHETORIC

July 05, 1992|By LYLE DENNISTON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- They did not look like combat zones: an elegant hotel ballroom, a nicely appointed meeting room -- both peopled with well-mannered, dressed-for-effect individuals.

But there they were, angry combatants in the abortion war, getting down to the grim business of body counts.

Words and phrases are weapons in the nation's unrelenting battles over abortion, and each side keeps pounding the other with the language of death: the women who risk dying if abortion is not an option, the unborn who will die for certain because abortion is an option.

Abortion rights forces have often sounded the cry against "illegal back-alley abortions," resulting in perhaps thousands of women's deaths. That often has gone unanswered by the other side, which was unwilling to contribute to an image of women as victims.

And anti-abortion forces repeatedly have rallied around the demand for an end to "baby-killing." That, too, has not drawn direct responses from the other side, unwilling to acknowledge that that was what abortion is about.

Last week, as the two sides looked forward to abortion's future in America, in the days after the Supreme Court changed the forecast for that future, there again were crosstown volleys about the coming casualties.

This time, however, the propaganda war was being waged entirely over the potential casualties among pregnant women, if abortion again were put out of reach. That could happen, perhaps to a significant measure, should states with strong anti-abortion sentiment read Monday's Supreme Court ruling as an opening to further limit access to abortion.

Two formal reports were issued, one from each side, both predicated on the assumption that abortion might become less available, perhaps denied altogether, at some point in the future. "Facing a Future without Choice" was the title of a report from a commission set up by the National Abortion Rights Action Legue; "Life Without Roe" was the other, from a foundation related to the National Right to Life Committee.

The two sides joined issue directly on whether, and how many, women will die if there is a future with little or no abortion right remaining. They debated whether the "back alley" is a place to be feared at all in that future.

At one press conference, Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional scholar, Harvard law professor and abortion rights supporter, looked closely at the Supreme Court's new decision to limit abortion as a right, and remarked:

"The bad news is that what the Supreme Court left of Roe, the foundation . . . is a floor shot through with holes, holes through which poor women, rural women, women of color will surely fall, and through which some will fall to their deaths."

He had served on the National Commission on America Without Roe, named by NARAL last January, and that group's 42-page action plan for America's tomorrow was filled with foreboding about the potential casualties among women when and if abortion rights are curtailed.

It predicted: "Some women will resort to dangerous self-induced abortions. Desperate women will again resort to ingesting turpentine and inserting coat hangers or fitting needles into their bodies, resulting in infection, injury, sterility and death."

It went on: "Many poor women will be forced to defy the law, risking and losing their lives or death. As more women die of unsafe abortion, the toll for women of color will be especially high."

At a different press conference a bit later in another part of town, Cynthia McKnight, a legislative specialist for the Horatio R. Storer Foundation, used charts and complex arithmetic to show that illegal abortion is not a genuine threat confronting many women:

"There are grounds for predicting that the total maternal mortality from abortion may well decline, rather than increase, if laws protecting unborn children from abortion are again enacted and enforced."

Her study, she said, "debunks the idea that there will be many more deaths from a ban on abortion. By looking at the historical picture, that didn't happen in the years before Roe, and it is not going to happen after Roe. There are a lot of myths that are being promoted."

Data she gathered, Ms. McKnight said, refutes the claims she attributed to the other side, that 5,000 to 10,000 women died each year from illegal abortions before the Roe decision made abortion legal in 1973. The data, she said, "show no year from 1950 onward with even as many as 300 deaths, and demonstrate a long pattern of decline long before the legalization of abortion" -- due primarily to improved medicine.

In the year before Roe was decided, she said, 39 women died due to illegal abortion. "While every death is a profound tragedy, 39 deaths is a small percentage of the 5 million pregnancies occurring each year in the U.S."

Lyle Denniston covers the Supreme Court and legal issues from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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