Roe at 30

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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“And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth …”

Exodus 21:22-24

* * *

Three decades after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its historic Roe v. Wade decision, the debate on abortion shows no signs of abating. Indeed, the right of a woman to choose abortion is more threatened than ever.

You might think the issue would be a no-brainer. America is a deeply religious nation. And as Exodus 21 makes clear, the Bible does not consider abortion to be homicide. Kill a person, pay with your life. Kill a fetus, pay a fine. It’s on the basis of this passage that the rabbis of old ruled abortion tantamount to removal of a body part — not to be taken lightly, but sometimes recommended or even required when the mother’s needs so dictate.

Not all religious people agree, of course. Some Christians, for example, read Exodus to mean that the “harm” punishable by death is harm to the fetus rather than the mother. It’s hard to extract that from the plain text, but then, belief takes many shapes. That’s why belief is best left in the private realm.

These days, though, belief is anything but private. Religious believers of the most extreme sort today populate America’s public sphere, with alarming results — and nowhere more alarming than in the matter of abortion.

Roe was meant to guarantee any woman the right to have an abortion performed when she believed it was in her best interest. For several years that was the ruling’s effect. Today, however, the reality is quite different. Polls consistently show that 80% of Americans believe abortion ought to be available, either at will or within defined limits. And yet millions of American women have virtually no access to a medical facility where abortions are performed. In six out of seven counties nationwide not a single medical facility offers the procedure. More than half of all medical schools don’t even teach it. Militants of the religious right have managed, through a 30-year campaign of intimidation, to scare much of the medical profession away from performing a procedure that is legal, widely accepted and often life-saving.

Nor does the threat end there. With all major branches of the federal government in the hands of an increasingly right-leaning Republican party, the religious right is poised to reverse the fundamental legal underpinnings of abortion. The Republican-controlled Congress appears ready to whittle away abortion rights through a series of petty limitations on access, while waiting for an opening on the Supreme Court that could abolish Roe altogether. The next retirement, or the one after, from America’s highest bench will allow President Bush to name an abortion opponent who can reverse the court’s current 5-4 majority in favor of preserving the right to choose.

What is the basis of this militant march backward? It is the belief, as voiced by an assistant secretary of state last month in a speech to an international family-planning conference, in “the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.” In the eyes of the religious right, “unborn children” should be entitled to the same legal protections as those who happened to have entered the world. Most Americans don’t agree with them, but that doesn’t seem to matter. In the view of the right, moral absolutes are what should determine policy, not the wishes of the majority.

The fact is that democracy is often a matter of who shouts loudest. It’s time everyone else learned to shout back.

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