CHICAGO - When T. S. Eliot wrote that "humankind cannot bear very much reality," he could have been talking about the abortion debate. As abortion rights advocates try to make their case against the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, they have abandoned fact-checking in favor of mythmaking.
The myths in this case are two. The first is that Judge Roberts is a frothing extremist on the subject of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision creating a constitutional right to abortion. The second is that the American people - the "pro-choice majority" - staunchly support that ruling and everything it stands for.
The evidence that the nominee is a right-wing nut stems from positions he took during his years in the White House under Ronald Reagan and in the Justice Department under George H. W. Bush. In one 1990 case, he signed a brief arguing, "The court's conclusion in Roe that there is a fundamental right to an abortion ... finds no support in the text, structure or history of the Constitution." Another time, he noted a "serious problem in the current exercise of judicial power," as illustrated "by what is broadly perceived to be the unprincipled jurisprudence of Roe vs. Wade."
We are told that only an ultraconservative, anti-feminist zealot could say things like that. In fact, you don't have to venture into the right-wing fever swamps to encounter such criticism. You can find plenty of it without leaving impeccably liberal precincts.
Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who argued Al Gore's post-election case before the Supreme Court in 2000, has said of Roe that "behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found." Even. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by President Bill Clinton, criticized Roe vs. Wade before joining the court. In 1985, she called it an act of "heavy-handed judicial intervention" that "ventured too far."
What's striking is how many supporters of legal abortion have trouble justifying the way the court addressed the issue. So when Judge Roberts faults the court for its overbearing presumption and lame reasoning, he's not on the fringes of the debate - he's smack in the middle.
The same can't be said of abortion rights advocates. They not only insist that Roe is sacrosanct but pretend the public agrees with them. NARAL Pro-Choice America asserts that "surveys show that 65 percent of Americans support upholding Roe vs. Wade."
That statement manages to be factual without exactly being true. If you ask people whether they would like to see the decision overturned, a majority says no. But the main conclusion you can draw from that finding is that a lot of citizens are hazy on what the court did in that ruling.
Most people equate overturning Roe with banning all abortions. In fact, a reversal of the decision would simply allow states to decide for themselves whether to ban all abortions, some abortions or no abortions.
At the same time they indicate support for Roe, Americans favor definite limits on this procedure - including some the Supreme Court has forbidden. "They don't want all abortions to be illegal," says public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, "but they're still willing to add considerable restrictions."
Most Americans, for example, favor waiting periods and parental consent for minors - which abortion rights groups cannot tolerate. More important, most Americans think abortion should be banned after the first trimester.
In a 2003 Gallup Poll, 68 percent of Americans said abortion "should be generally illegal" in the second trimester, and 84 percent said it should be barred in the third trimester. Under Roe, however, the government has to permit almost all abortions, no matter when they occur.
There's no way to know if Judge Roberts would vote to junk the 1973 decision. If the court were to do that, though, it would merely let the electorate put its conflicting feelings about abortion into law in a way citizens can live with. Allowing the American people to have their way on a subject that is not mentioned in the Constitution is not extremism. It's democracy.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.