ATLANTA -- If President Bush gets his way, the Supreme Court will vacate Roe v. Wade even before Mr. Bush vacates the White House.
With the expected confirmation of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. - and depending on the vote of the moderately conservative Justice Anthony M. Kennedy - the right to a legal abortion could be struck down, leaving states to decide whether to keep abortion legal. Two years ago, the Center for Reproductive Rights estimated that 30 states would declare abortions illegal within a year of a high court decision overturning Roe.
That makes it all the more important that progressives unite in a campaign to persuade sexually active Americans to use contraceptives. Indeed, the timing is perfect for a challenge to anti-abortion groups: If you want to decrease the number of abortions in this country, join us in a high-profile campaign to increase contraceptive use.
If advocates of family planning don't act quickly to capture public attention, conservative extremists will rev up their own campaign to eliminate access to contraceptives. They won't be content to toss out abortion rights. They will merely interpret that success as license to roll back the clock 50 years to a time when women had little control over conception.
Ultraconservatives have already succeeded in blocking over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive known as the "morning-after" pill. While the Food and Drug Administration's professional staff and an advisory panel of outside experts declared the contraceptive safe for use without a prescription, the agency has refused to approve it. Late last year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report confirming that anti-abortion politics were behind the agency's stonewalling.
Those same right-wing activists have started a quiet campaign to persuade state legislatures to allow pharmacists to decide whether they will fill a woman's prescription for birth control pills. Women have reported that druggists have gone so far as to question them about their marital status before filling a prescription.
At the federal level, the fight to preserve Roe is probably already lost. Judge Alito is in. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. showed his allegiance to the dubious "culture of life" crowd recently when he joined Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in a dissent to a majority opinion upholding Oregon's assisted-suicide law. (Conservatives used to believe in states' rights, but lately they've adhered to that only when it's convenient.) Additionally, Mr. Bush has three more years in which to stack the court with foes of abortion.
Besides, reproductive rights groups have already ceded too much of the moral high ground with their seeming enthusiasm for abortion. Too many of their public relations efforts have portrayed the decision to terminate a pregnancy as if it were as inconsequential as getting a prescription for a toenail fungus. A few years ago, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America sold T-shirts on which the wearer advertised the fact that she had had an abortion. The slogans were much too glib.
Instead, groups from the National Abortion Rights Action League to Planned Parenthood ought to be stating the obvious: Abortions should be safe, legal and rare. While the abortion rate has gradually declined over the last decade, the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that more than a million are still performed annually - far more than in most other Western industrialized countries, where contraceptives are used more widely. The institute also estimates that nearly half of all pregnancies among American women are unintended.
Family planning advocates would find overwhelming public approval for a high-profile campaign advocating broader use of contraceptives: Ninety-four percent of Americans believe that contraceptive use is morally acceptable. It's a crusade whose time has come.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.