Abortion ambivalence

January 22, 2003

THE SUPREME COURT'S decision 30 years ago today to decriminalize abortion will be an anniversary noisily marked. Outraged opponents will rally in protest as they have almost annually. Ardent advocates will issue statements of support, and summon their own troops in defense of the policy.

Much of the rest of the country will groan, feel vaguely uncomfortable and try to tune it out. Polls suggest that most Americans don't consider abortion an issue that lends itself to absolutes. They may support a woman's right to make the choice, or at least respect her privacy. That doesn't mean they celebrate abortion or that they would ever have one themselves. This is not an anniversary for popping champagne corks.

The best news on the topic is that after 30 years the abortion rate is down, particularly among teen-agers. Young women have gotten better at avoiding pregnancy, apparently through a combination of birth control and abstinence.

Abortion opponents and women's rights advocates could make even greater progress if they joined forces to advance the cause of pregnancy prevention. But all indications are that both sides will continue to direct their best resources at battling each other over the law - in Congress, in state legislatures and in the courts.

Much of the conflict is driven by abortion opponents, of course, and politicians seeking their favor.

Doubtless some believe they are on a righteous crusade to protect embryonic life from sacrifice by selfish mothers. Yet, with so many children already in the world - unloved, uncared for, with their basic human needs unfulfilled - the wonder is why such crusaders don't worry first about them, or least about adding to their ranks.

Perhaps their zeal has to do with sin and punishment and trying to force people to take responsibility for their actions. But if parenthood is a kind of penalty, can that possibly be good for the child?

Thirty years ago, the court wisely decided the appropriate role for the government in these intensely private and personal matters was to butt out.

Since then, the battle has largely been fought around the fringes of that policy, such as curbing the use of public money to finance abortions for poor women. Some latitude has been granted for the states to impose restrictions, such as requiring girls under 18 to get parental consent.

Republican resurgence in Washington has stoked hopes of much tighter limits. President Bush will likely raise those expectations further in an address today to the protest rally. Legislation banning late-term abortions, vetoed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, has already been promised a friendly reception in the Bush White House. But such abortions are few and usually involve women in the cruelest of circumstances, when a near-term pregnancy has gone horribly awry.

Mr. Bush has signaled that he seeks to overturn abortion rights entirely by naming abortion opponents to the Supreme Court.

But if he wants to please the majority of voters, who think banning abortion is a simplistic and impractical approach, the president should focus his efforts on pregnancy prevention - through sex education and birth control as well as abstinence.

Ending unwanted pregnancy would indeed be something to celebrate.

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