Most of our nation's political leaders oppose abortion. President George W. Bush is against it. His chief Cabinet officers denounce it, as do majorities in both houses of Congress. Bush's nominees for the nation's federal courts must oppose abortion rights if they want to be confirmed, though no one likes to admit to litmus tests.
This opposition doesn't reflect the feelings of the electorate, however. A recent Gallup poll confirmed that Americans generally support the legality of abortion. That support has held constant through the years.
The United States legalized abortion in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. On Jan. 22, 1973, in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Harry A. Blackmun read aloud the court's ruling and opinion, which he wrote for the 7-2 majority.
The court, wrote Blackmun, was keenly aware that people on both sides felt strongly about abortion: "One's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one's thinking and conclusions about abortion."
Thirty years later, emotions remain heightened. Last week, groups in New Orleans marked the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade with forums, prayer vigils and marches -- both for and against abortion rights.
Many believe that support for abortion rights now hangs by a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the years, courts and legislatures have limited the accessibility and affordability of abortion. In the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Louisiana v. Casey, the Supreme Court both affirmed and narrowed Roe v. Wade by adopting a standard that allows states to restrict abortion rights as long as they do not "unduly burden" a woman's right to choose.
In recent years, the Louisiana Legislature passed various statutes to restrict or eliminate abortion rights. Some of those laws passed under the guise of protecting women, even though abortion today is a relatively safe procedure -- especially when obtained in the first trimester of pregnancy. Nationwide, 89 percent of abortions are performed within 12 weeks of conception. Fewer than 1 percent occur after 21 weeks.
Some opponents have argued that abortions are being performed for frivolous reasons, as another form of birth control. In Roe v. Wade, the Court stated that maternity and the responsibilities of caring for a child are legitimate factors for women to consider when deciding whether to terminate a pregnancy. That said, opponents and supporters of abortion rights should work together to prevent the need for abortion. Support for pregnancy-prevention programs -- a mixture of abstinence and education -- is the best way to accomplish this goal.
Since 1973, women have had more than 39 million legal abortions in the United States, according to data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which researches reproductive health. But in recent years, abortion has been on the decline. In the year 2000 (the latest figures available), it was at the lowest rate since 1974 -- 21.3 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. In fact, abortions have increased substantially only among the nation's poorest women -- a statistic that underscores the need for greater education among the poor about pregnancy and how to prevent it, as well as greater accessibility to birth control.
The Guttmacher Institute found that one reason for the decline in abortion rates is increased use of emergency contraception, which can prevent a pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex. In 2000 alone, emergency contraception prevented more than 50,000 abortions. (Emergency contraceptive pills should not be confused with RU486, the so-called abortion pill. Emergency contraception inhibits ovulation, fertilization and the implantation of an egg BEFORE pregnancy occurs.)
Yet the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found in 2000 that only 2 percent of American women aged 18 to 44 have used emergency contraceptive pills and that 73 percent of women in that age group had not even heard of them. Furthermore, only 20 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists regularly discuss them with their patients. A few states have now made emergency contraception available over the counter. Louisiana should consider this, in an effort to prevent abortions.
For religious and other reasons, some abortion opponents also oppose birth control. Recently, the Bush administration has taken drastic steps to limit information in schools and on public health Web sites about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Intentionally or not, such moves only increase the likelihood that women will find themselves facing an unintended pregnancy.
The debate over abortion will not end soon, for many reasons. As Justice Blackmun noted 30 years ago, "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."
Instead, as Roe v. Wade held three decades ago, every woman should have the right to answer that and other abortion-related questions privately.