... and ain't i a woman?: The state of Roe v. Wade

Issue 

The film Roe versus Wade, shown by Channel 7 on May 29 (with a group of anti-abortion activists protesting outside) brought to life the legal and personal dimensions of the famous 1973 US Supreme Court ruling in favour of a woman's right to choose abortion.

More interestingly, perhaps, it illustrated the strength of the more liberal strand in establishment opinion prevailing in the early '70s. Watching the film, it was pretty clear that Supreme Court judges had already made up their minds before the lawyers had even presented their cases. It showed how much a "neutral" legal system in fact responds to the balance of forces in the debates in society.

The situation is rather different now. In the last 10 years a well-organised and lavishly funded campaign has sought to move public opinion in an anti-abortion direction, to frighten and demoralise individual women and their doctors and to prepare the ground for a Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

That liberal strand in establishment thinking — spurred on by the radical movements of the 1960s — still exists, but it is on the defensive. Today, the Supreme Court's majority is Republican conservative.

On May 23, the courted voted five to four that family planning clinics supported by federal funds may not discuss abortion with pregnant women or advise them on how to get one. A New York Times editorial pointed out that the government would now have the power to "pressure clinics to hide information or even mislead poor pregnant women about their right to choose whether or not to bear a child".

"If a woman directly asks whether abortion is an option for her unintended pregnancy", ran the editorial, "she must be told that 'the project does not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning' even if the doctors believe it is an option".

Anti-abortion campaigners are now relying on new state laws against abortion being appealed in test cases which would eventually work their way up through the legal system to be ruled on in the Supreme Court.

A spate of such laws is being passed now, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision of July 1989, which gave states greater latitude in restricting abortion.

The worst of these is a bill passed by the Louisiana legislature on June 18, which outlaws all abortions except to save the lives of the mothers (a threat to health is not enough) or in cases of rape or incest (but only if a woman can prove she notified the police within seven days of the incident). Doctors convicted of performing illegal abortions would be liable to prison terms of up to 10 years and fines up to $100,000.

But the pro-choice movement is still powerful and well organised, with a solid section of public opinion behind it, and its s. Some state governors, such as California's Pete Wilson, have pledged to use state money to support family planning clinics giving abortion information. Democrat legislators in Congress are preparing legislation which would counteract the Supreme Court ruling banning the use of federal funds for abortion counselling.

For all that, the pro-choice movement is clearly on the defensive. Susan Kennedy, executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League, has commented to reporters that the "1991 overall forecast is threatening".