20 Years After Roe vs. Wade

January 25, 1993

In a matter of minutes on Friday, President Clinton reversed some of the most significant anti-abortion victories of the past two decades. Too bad he couldn't end, with the stroke of a pen, one of the longest and most acrimonious public debates in the nation's history. But the presence of some 75,000 demonstrators -- many of whom have gathered in Washington each Jan. 22 since 1973 to protest legalized abortion -- proved that the country has not heard the end of the issue.

To mark the 20th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the president signed an executive order reversing the infamous "gag rule" prohibiting any mention of abortion in federally financed family planning clinics. He also signed orders ending bans on abortions at military hospitals and on federally funded research using fetal tissue. He restored U.S. contributions to international family planning programs, and ordered a review of the ban on the private importation of RU-486, the French abortion pill.

Each of these actions has significance beyond the abortion debate. The "gag rule" was widely criticized as an infringement of freedom of speech, as well as of every patient's right to information about all available medical options. The ban on fetal tissue research represented to many scientists a crass case of ideology interfering with legitimate scientific inquiry -- and slowing medical advances that could eventually benefit many people.

No doubt historians will note one of the cruelest ironies of the "pro-life" movement: Their earliest victory during the Reagan years, the policy of withholding U.S. funds from the major international family planning organizations, actually contributed to maternal and infant mortality in Third World countries. In those parts of the world, programs that dispense contraceptives often provide the only health care women are likely to get. Moreover, giving them the ability to space their babies a couple of years apart vastly increases the chances that their children will survive infancy.

Public opinion polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans want to keep abortion legal, although there is also significant support for some restrictions, such as limits on late-term abortions. But the stridence of the debate has rarely left room for nuances. So it was refreshing to hear President Clinton remind the nation of the larger issue: "Our vision should be of an America where abortion is safe and legal but rare."

In the fight to outlaw abortion or to make it freely available, the need to make abortion unnecessary has gotten short shrift. President Clinton took the easy steps on Friday. The larger challenge is to remove abortion from the political agenda by shaping policies that make abortion both unnecessary and rare.

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