25 years of legal abortions Roe vs. Wade: Ruling swept away restrictive laws, but public remains divided.

January 22, 1998

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago today, when the Supreme Court issued long-awaited rulings in two abortion cases, even advocates of legal abortion were surprised by the extent of their victory. After years of fighting for incremental liberalization, almost no one expected the court to overrule virtually all restrictions on legalized abortion.

The decision erased the need for an underground network of abortion counselors and providers. Some of these services had offered access to competently performed abortions. But in the years before Roe vs. Wade, many other women felt desperate enough to seek out any help they could find. The abortion-rights movement gained much of its fervor from physicians who saw the mangled results in emergency rooms around the country.

Now, memories of those dangers have faded. Meanwhile, abortion opponents, galvanized by the decision in Roe vs. Wade, organized into a nationwide movement. They have worked diligently to overturn the decision or, failing that, to undermine it.

Today, abortion remains legal, but the ambivalence of most people on the issue gives abortion opponents an opportunity to limit access to the procedure. They do that either by such means as enacting laws prohibiting the use of government funds to pay for Medicaid abortions or simply by the threat of violence against physicians and staff members at clinics where abortions are performed.

Yet despite a quarter-century of strident debate, few Americans have changed their minds: Only a small minority believes abortion should be illegal under all conditions, while a solid majority supports keeping abortion legal, especially in the early stages of pregnancy.

But the principle of unrestricted access to abortion throughout pregnancy clearly troubles many Americans, and abortion opponents have been successful in chipping away at the availability of abortion through such issues as parental consent for teen-agers and proposals to ban late-term abortion procedures.

Ironically, these efforts are more successful when Americans feel such proposals do not threaten to return the country to the days when abortions -- and deaths from abortion -- were illegal but hardly rare. A quarter-century after Roe vs. Wade, the debate about limitations rages on, while support for legalized abortion remains firm.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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