25 years after Roe, 35 million stories

January 20, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- A quarter-century ago, on the day after the Supreme Court overturned the laws that had made abortion in America a criminal act, the New York Times editorial writers offered a prediction: ''The court's 7-2 ruling could bring to an end the emotional and divisive public argument over what always should have been an intensely private and personal matter.''

So much for editorial prescience.

This year, as both sides hunker down Thursday for the silver anniversary, the public argument is as emotional and divisive as ever. In Roe vs. Wade, the court declared a complex medical and legal compromise. But there is no political compromise between advocates who call themselves pro-choice and those who call themselves pro-life.

In the past 25 years, those in favor of abortion rights went from the offense to the perpetual defense. Those who oppose abortion have tried to make it illegal or at least impossible, chipping away, state by state, rule by rule, clinic by clinic.

Technological breakthroughs

Has anything changed in this ideological stalemate? Much is being said about how technology has refocused the public eye on the fetus. Indeed, since Roe we've seen sonograms and fetal surgery. Infertility now evokes more sympathy than unwanted pregnancy. The ability to ''save'' smaller babies threatens to collide with the right to abort fetuses.

But something else has changed that is equally dramatic and more often overlooked. To put it in simple demographic terms: Since the Supreme Court decision, some 21 million American women have chosen to have 35 million abortions.

As the legal, political and ethical arguments have raged, as ambivalent Americans have been pulled by arguments on both sides, these women became their own moral decision-makers.

The latest figures from the Guttmacher Institute relay a welcome drop in the number of unplanned pregnancies.

But the report also passes along the news that 48 percent of women 15 to 44 have had at least one unplanned pregnancy in their lives. At current rates, 43 percent of American women will have had an abortion by age 45.

In the post-Roe era, abortion in America is safe, legal and common.

Among this huge and often too silent number, some women called themselves pro-choice before they were unexpectedly pained by the decision they faced.

Others considered themselves pro-life before they came up against their own hard realities.

Some experienced abortion as little more than an unpleasant office visit; others as a traumatic event. Some look back with relief and some with regret.

Complicated life stories

But it is safe to say that most pregnant women confront the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy with a more complicated life story than the pro-life forces will admit. And with more complex moral feelings than pro-choice groups feel safe to acknowledge.

American public opinion today is not all that different from the Supreme Court decision of 25 years ago.

We are more comfortable with early abortions, less comfortable as the pregnancy goes on.

We don't want women to suffer as they did in pre-Roe days. Nor do we want women to take abortion too ''lightly.''

At current rates, 43 percent of American women will have had an abortion by age 45.

In public policy, it seems we are continually calibrating just the ''right'' amount of suffering, the ''right'' number of hurdles -- waiting periods, money, parental permission slips -- a woman should face before an abortion.

In the public image, we often portray women from 14 to 45 who choose abortion as irresponsible, untrustworthy, while those who choose motherhood are self-sacrificing and ''good.''

Rights and responsibilities

But even in an increasingly conservative climate, these 21 million -- and the men, the mothers, the children, the friends in their lives -- know something else.

So do the millions of women who had the choice and made the decision to go ahead with an unplanned pregnancy. They know the real stories. They know what it means to have the right and the responsibility.

A quarter-century ago, before sonograms or morning-after pills, a 26-year-old lawyer, Sarah Weddington, told the Supreme Court, ''We are not here to advocate abortion.

"We are here to advocate that the decision as to whether or not a particular woman will continue to carry or will terminate a pregnancy is a decision that should be made by the individual.''

Since then, many Americans may have forgotten what it was like to risk life in a back alley, but many have learned what it is like to determine their own future.

I hold no illusions about an end to this ''emotional and divisive public argument.'' It will be shaped by politics and medicine, by abstract arguments about ''life.''

But in the next 25 years it will also -- and I think, most fundamentally -- be shaped by women looking at their own lives.

Women who know the importance of having a choice, however hard. Not the government's choice, their own.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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