The Supreme Court based its landmark decision, Roe v. Wade, on a right to privacy, thus intending no judgment of the act itself. In other words, abortion could be perfectly wrong, yet remain a medical decision beyond the legitimate sphere of governmental proscription.
Justice Blackmun, who had spent more than one year writing the decision, soon learned that the public had a different view of the issue. As Bob Woodward reported in his book on the Supreme Court, “The Brethren,” pro-lifers flooded Blackmun’s office with letters, excoriating the decision and suggesting negative consequences for Blackmun come judgment day. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, adopted him as a hero; he even received thanks from women who felt empowered by his work to get abortions.
While Blackmun would call the decision a disinterested ruling of constitutional law, the American public immediately saw the decision, and its subject, abortion, in moral terms. For pro-lifers, the decision was evil because they thought abortion wrong. For pro-choicers, the decision was good because they thought abortion a valuable tool in achieving women’s equality.
It is unclear what precise proportion of the country at the time of Roe v Wade fell into each camp. Indeed, it is probable that most Americans had spent little scrutiny on the issue. But Roe v. Wade awoke the pro-lifers from their stupor.
First, it overturned laws in almost all of the states. While a standing law is no guarantee of a cultural consensus, the quick formation of a pro-life movement attested to the outrage of many.
Second, under the influence of Roe v Wade, more women obtained abortions. It is an commonly held but false belief of the pro-choice zeitgeist that Roe v Wade merely brought abortion out of back-alleys and into clinics. The research arm of Planned Parenthood estimates that there were about 750,000 abortions in 1973, the first year that abortion was legal nation wide. By 1980, that number had more than doubled.
Finally, after Roe v Wade, abortion became a topic of increased public discussion. Such dramatic legal change both invited a critique by its detractors and required a justification by its defenders. This is where the pro-life movement flourished. Although the discussion wasn’t always orderly and was marred by a few high-profile incidents of violence against abortionists and clinics, the pro-life movement increasingly brought into the public eye the impact of abortion on women as well as on unborn children. Even President Reagan joined the serious discussion with his 1983 article, “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,” which outlined the failures of Roe v Wade and the evils of abortion.
By the late 1980s, though the number of abortions in America in excess of 1.5 million per year, the pro-life movement had some hope for change. Pro-choicers had largely switched from arguing for abortion as a positive good to abortion as a necessary evil. The Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey represented this trend in reformulating the defense of legal abortion on a foundation of individual liberty. The Court wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
After Planned Parenthood v. Casey, most Americans agreed, for the first time, that the high incidence of abortion in America has predominantly negative consequences. Pro-lifers continued to see abortion as evil, but the moral lenses of pro-choicers had come off. What emerged then, and continues today, is the search for common ground on which pro-lifers and pro-choicers can work together, outside the realm of legal proscription, to reduce the number of abortions.
The pro-choicers have suggested increased availability of contraception for young people. The argument makes a lot of sense. Since young people have abortions more than any other group, an increased availability of contraception should reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, thereby reducing the number of abortions. The problem is that it hasn’t actually worked this way. In fact, quite the opposite has been the case. As contraceptives became increasingly available in America in the last half-century, the incidence of abortion increased. And in the recent years of “abstinence-only” sex-education, the incidence of abortion has slightly decreased.
The problem isn’t contraceptives per se. It is of course true that contraceptives can and do limit unplanned pregnancy when used correctly by a couple. But the availability of contraceptives, and the knowledge of their availability, reflects something in our culture that encourages rather than discourages abortion.
Sex used to be a responsibility as well as a right; that was when sex was connected to babies. But the general availability of contraceptives is a reminder that sex is no longer a responsibility. When a woman learns that she is with child in this, our contraceptive culture, she cannot bear the responsibility, and chooses not to bear the child.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.