Monday, January 23, 2006

"My Right to Roe" by Judith Warner

My Right to Roe
Judith Warner

With the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court all but certain, it’s becoming accepted wisdom that Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision granting women the right to abortion, is likely soon to be reversed.

I’m not sure, though, that Roe really will be overturned by an Alito (and John Roberts) court. I’m not sure that it really is in the interest of the Republican Party to usher in a court that overturns Roe.I’m also not sure, at this point, that Roe really matters.

I’m exaggerating — somewhat — but let me explain what I mean.Decades of abortion-rights restrictions pushed through Congress and the statehouses by wily abortion opponents with the acquiescence — indeed, the encouragement — of the public have made the right to choose granted by Roe an empty promise for large numbers of American women.

This has been an unqualified triumph for abortion opponents and has put Republican leaders in an enviable position; even with a majority of the American public still solidly “pro-choice” (in the abstract), they can rest easy in the knowledge that, at this time, Roe is, in certain parts of the country, close to meaningless.

The restrictions on Roe include such things as forcing women to endure misleading state-mandated lectures when they seek abortions; making them spend time and money they don’t have driving back and forth to faraway clinics as they sit out state-mandated “waiting periods”; making doctors deal with labyrinthine regulations intended to make it all but impossible for them to provide abortions; making young women seek their parents’ or a judge’s permission for an abortion — no matter how fraught, dysfunctional or downright dangerous their relationship with their parents might be. (And show me the teenager who’s going to hunt down a judge to discuss the most intimate aspects of her personal life.)

Ever since Sandra Day O’Connor — hailed now generally as the swing vote who saved Roe — paved the way for the decision’s eventual evisceration by writing an opinion, in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, that permitted states to regulate abortion if those regulations didn’t place an “undue burden” on women, more than 400 new restrictions have been placed on a woman’s right to choose.

These restrictions seem right and common-sensical to most people. Wouldn’t most parents want to know if their daughter was to have an abortion? Should taxpayers be forced to pay for procedures they morally abhor? Isn’t it an abomination to violently maim and murder a viable infant in the womb?

I myself, a committed abortion-rights supporter, permitted myself to grow complacent about these restrictions in recent years. Like many other former donors to NOW and Naral Pro-Choice America, I let the abortion-rights issue slip to the very far back burner of my political thinking during the “safe, legal and rare” years of the pro-choice Clinton administration.

I became a mother during those years as well, and, I’m ashamed to admit, issues relating to motherhood and family life loomed much larger in my personal and professional mind than did bodily integrity and family planning. I, like just about everyone else in the country, was nauseated by the picture of late-term “partial birth” abortion painted by its opponents: images of scissors gashing through the heads of infants in utero, images of babies getting their brains removed by suction tube.

Intellectually, I knew that these depictions were a political manipulation by people whose true goal was to ban abortion outright. But emotionally, I played right along with their game.I didn’t even get all that worked up about Roberts and Alito — until last month, when I read Kate Michelman’s new book, “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.’’

Michelman is the former president of Naral, and that her book would argue for abortion rights is no surprise. But it does offer something else that is vital, which is why I’m writing about it today. It draws on stories, testimonials, letters and phone calls from Michelman’s years at Naral, and as a result, it gives a human face — many faces — to the impact of the aforementioned restrictions. And those faces — those voices — just can’t be ignored.

Take the testimony of Coreen Costello, a mother of two, who was seven months pregnant when she learned her fetus had a fatal neurological defect and had become rigid in the birthing position. She wanted to carry her to term and deliver her normally, but her doctors argued that doing so would put her own life in danger. After great soul-searching, she decided she was unwilling to take the risk of leaving her children motherless and allowed the fetus to be aborted through the kind of procedure long vilified by the opponents of “partial birth’’ abortion.

In 1995, when the Senate Judiciary Committee was debating an earlier version of the ban that went into effect in 2003, she pleaded with them to remember the humanity of the families put in the position of having to choose to end a wanted pregnancy. “We are the families that ache to hold our babies, to tame them, to love and nurture them,” she said. “We are the families who will forever have a hole in our hearts.” She survived the potentially fatal pregnancy and went on to have another child.

Another testimonial from Michelman’s book: The voice of Becky Bell, a high school junior who died of an illegal abortion in 1998 because she didn’t want to have to tell her parents that she was pregnant — and her state, Indiana, required parental notification or judicial bypass. As she lay dying on a hospital gurney, Becky pulled off her oxygen mask to speak to her parents. “Forgive me,” she said.

If these stories don’t shame us into greater vigilance about the effects of laws that we — the lucky, the privileged, the protected — allow to come into being because they don’t affect us, then nothing will.

If they don’t make us stop and ask ourselves what kind of society we have allowed ourselves to become, then truly we are lost.

If they don’t shake us from our tight-hearted complacency, temper our judgments about those less deserving and with-it and “responsible,” and inspire in us greater empathy for those who face desperate decisions, often alone, then we are irredeemable.

And to those who repeat, without cease, that abortion rights amount to state-sanctioned murder, I would say: remember Becky Bell.

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