Roe V. Wade Under Threat
How recent legislation passed in the United States of America is challenging the Supreme Court decision that allowed women to choose to terminate pregnancies. By Kathambi Kinoti.
The United States may be inching closer to an overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that secured the individual woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. On February 22, 2006, South Dakota's Senate voted 23 to 12 on a bill to ban abortions in the state, and on March 6, Governor Michael Rounds signed the bill into law. The new law which is expected to come into force in July this year, will make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions, except in order to save the life of a pregnant woman, and even a woman who conceives as a result of rape or incest will not be permitted to have an abortion. Supporters of the successful bill hope that South Dakota will set a trend for the rest of the United States to follow, and also hope to force the Supreme Court to re-consider the Roe v. Wade decision. A sponsor of the bill, Representative Roger Hunt reportedly says that 'momentum is building for a change in national policy on abortion.'1 Some other states are already following suit. Mississippi's legislature voted on March 2, 2006, to approve a ban on abortion. The Mississippi law would however allow abortions in cases of rape and incest as well as to save a pregnant woman's life. Missouri is another state that is set to emulate South Dakota.
Pro-choice groups and individuals have expressed dismay at the recent developments. Cecile Richards, the Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America likened the South Dakota development to a chill wind 'blowing across America, eroding women's health and safety and the fundamental right of women to make private, personal decisions about when and whether to have a child.' She says that the anti-choice moves do not reflect the support of the majority of Americans of women's fundamental right to make personal and private health care decisions. Rather, it is a case of 'politicians catering to an extreme and highly organized fringe who are creating the hostile climate.'2
Chipping away at abortion rights
The South Dakota and Mississippi bans are not the first efforts to make dents in the right espoused by the Roe decision. Planned Parenthood has chronicled a number of challenges made over the years to reproductive rights. The organization says:
'Retrograde anti-choice policies are being revived. Religious political extremists have been given key administration posts. Anti-choice activist judges have been nominated for and placed on the federal bench. Ideology has trumped science in appointments to scientific posts, in the censoring of government Web sites, in the funding of medically unsound abstinence-only sex education programs, and in the banning of medical research that could save lives. Anti-choice zealots have imposed oppressive restrictions on abortion. Procedure bans threaten women's health. Family planning services are under attack by these same forces even though the best way to avoid abortion is to increase the availability of comprehensive sex education and a wide range of contraceptive options.'3 Before the recent ban, South Dakota's House had passed five laws restricting the efficacy of the right to choose. One of the laws required that doctors tell women that an abortion would terminate the life of a 'whole, separate, unique human being.' The implementation of that law however has been blocked by a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood.4
One of the moves by the US congress that pro-choice activists regard as a step towards the erosion of Roe is the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, 2003. The law gives a legal redefinition of the status of a foetus, 'elevating this status to that of an adult human being.'5 A number of states have also passed legislation requiring parental or spousal consent to abortions. Pro-choice advocates regard with apprehension, the several appointments in the recent past of right-wing people to judicial and administrative positions, some of whom have openly demonstrated anti-choice stances in their previous posts.
Legal battles in the offing
Upon signing the anti-choice bill into law, Governor Rounds is reported to have said that he fully expects a legal challenge to the ban.6 Representative Hunt, too, indicated that the ban's supporters are ready for a court battle, with USD 1 million already pledged by an anonymous donor to support legal costs.1 Pro-choice groups on their part have reported an upsurge in donations, volunteers and membership requests since the proposed law began drawing attention.8 Planned Parenthood which operates the only abortion clinic in South Dakota, has vowed to prevent the law from taking effect. It says that measures it will take could include prompting a state-wide referendum or instituting a lawsuit.9
Not all anti-choice groups agree that the timing of the anti-choice bans was right. This is because it is not certain that +Roe will be overturned, and if it is not, 'the damage for those opposed to abortion rights will be grave.'10 Some argue that it would have been more in their interests to continue the trend of restricting access to abortions gradually and indirectly. Although there does not seem to be consensus in anti-choice quarters about what strategy to adopt, the bans will clearly give impetus to anti-choice efforts to undermine the 1973 decision. In an interesting twist, the 'Roe' in Roe v. Wade whose real name is Norma McCorvey11 is now an anti-choice activist following her conversion to Christianity. In 2004 she sought to reopen her original case in order to have the decision reversed. However her attempts were unsuccessful.
An overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision will not make abortion illegal in the United States. It will simply mean that the decision whether or not to make it illegal is left to the individual states, and therefore the battle lines between pro- and anti-choice groups will be drawn at the state level. Pro-choice activists say that the real issue is how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Cecile Richards says:
'Outlawing abortion will not end abortion, but it will put women at risk. If politicians opposed to abortion truly wanted to reduce the need for abortion, they would work with organizations like Planned Parenthood to prevent unintended pregnancy by supporting increased access to contraception and medically accurate sex education.'12
Women around the world will watch with interest the upcoming debates on abortion, which are likely to prove instrumental in refining ideas about the right to privacy, life, health and information, as well as other fundamental rights and freedoms.
- Reported in Nieves, Evelyn ''S.D. Abortion Bill Takes Aim at 'Roe,''' 'The Washington Post' Thursday February 23, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/22/AR2006022202424.html
- In 'South Dakota's Chill Wind.' March 3. 2006. http://www.plannedparenthood.org/pp2/portal/files/portal/webzine/newspoliticsactivism/fean-060303-dangerous.xml
- See 'The War on Women: A Pernicious Web,' A Report by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2004.
- Reported in Davey, Monica. ''South Dakota Bans Abortion, Setting Up a Battle.'' 'New York Times,' March 7, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/07/national/07abortion.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
- Ibid 3.
- Ibid 4.
- Ibid 1.
- Ibid 4.
- In the US, 'Jane Roe' is a standard alias for an anonymous female plaintiff.
- Ibid 2.