September 14, 2003


The Women of Roe v. Wade (Mary Ann Glendon, June/July 2003, First Things)

Most women have understood all along that Roe v. Wade would not, as Friedan once predicted, "make women whole." For the past thirty years, all three leading polling organizations have consistently told us that a large majority of Americans, women even more than men, disapprove of the majority of abortions that are performed in this country. In recent years, that disapproval has increased significantly. The latest Zogby poll, reported in November 2002, reveals not only that Americans in general are becoming more conservative in their views about abortion, but that young people are significantly more pro-life than their parents. The strongest supporters of abortion rights in the United States, as any nineteenth-century feminist could have predicted, are not women-but men in the age group of eighteen to twenty-five. Nevertheless, the most pro-life part of the population is people under thirty.

Why, then, a curious person might ask, has that widely shared sentiment not tempered the extremism of American abortion law? In part it's probably because the Supreme Court has left so little room for expression of popular will through legislation. In part it's probably also because so much confusion exists about what the law really says. But there may be other, deeper reasons. With almost a million-and-a-half abortions a year for thirty years, we have become a society where nearly everyone has been touched by abortion, if not personally, then through friends and family members. When we speak about abortion today, we are speaking to women who have had abortions; to men who have asked women to have abortions; to young people who have lost brothers and sisters to abortion; and to the mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors of those women and men. That knowledge often leaves us tongue-tied, at a loss for words, for what to say and how to say it.

That knowledge has made it tempting for countless women and men to take refuge in slogans like: "Who am I to be judgmental?" and the famous "Personally, I'm opposed, but I can't impose my opinions on others."

I have to admit that, back in the 1970s, I was rather uncritical of such phrases. I remember asking the former dean of Boston College, a Jesuit priest, "Father, what do you think about this abortion issue?" He said, "Well you see, Mary Ann, it's very simple. According to Vatican II, abortion is 'an unspeakable moral crime.' But in a pluralistic democracy, we can't impose our moral views on other people." "Oh," I said, "OK."

I know this story doesn't reflect any credit on me, but I mention it to show that many of us just didn't focus on the issue all that closely. I know now that I should have questioned the word "impose." But it took some time before growing numbers of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews stepped forward to point out that when people advance their moral viewpoints in the public square, they are not imposing anything on anyone. They are proposing. That's what citizens do in a democracy-we propose, we give reasons, we vote. It's a very strange doctrine that would silence only religiously grounded moral viewpoints. And it's very unhealthy for democracy when the courts-without clear constitutional warrant-deprive citizens of the opportunity to have a say in setting the conditions under which we live, work, and raise our children.

It was only after I started to look into how controversial issues like abortion and divorce were handled in other liberal democracies that I realized how my dean's slogan has been used not only to silence religiously grounded views, but to silence all opposition to abortion. I should have asked the dean why citizens should have to withhold their moral views on abortion but not on other issues where he did not hesitate to advance religiously grounded moral viewpoints-the Vietnam War, capital punishment, civil rights, and relief of poverty. Years later, I put a related question to the former dean of Harvard Law School. In the mid-1980s, after I had given a talk to the Harvard faculty comparing American abortion law unfavorably with the approaches taken in several other liberal democracies, Dean Al Sacks took me out for lunch and said, "You know, no one in that room agrees with you." Since he had put the point in a friendly, avuncular way, I asked him about something that had long puzzled me. "Why," I asked, "did you and so many other constitutional lawyers stop criticizing the Court's abortion decisions after most of you had been highly critical of Roe v. Wade?" He sighed and gave me a very candid answer that had the ring of truth. "I suppose," he said, "it was because we had been made to understand that the abortion issue was so important to the women in our lives, and it just did not seem that important to most of us."

We've a tendency to think of abortion as an issue that has been fiercely divisive since Roe was announced, but both Richard Nixon and Geral Ford supported abortion and it's easy to forget that Ronald Reagan's opposition to abortion was considered a potential candidacy killer when he ran in 1980. It has taken us some time to recognize just what the creation of an unbridled "right" to abortion meant, but it seems that the recognition has moved the nation to the point where there's some serious prospect that both legislatures and the Court will start to reign it in. The most important dynamic fueling this movement will be the collapsing support of women for abortion, support which was always an aberration.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 14, 2003 8:17 AM

Nixon and Ford supported abortion rights since a majority of the American people believed Roe was something other than what it was. When the implications of Roe are fully explained to most who see themselves as "pro-choice" they are almost uniformly surprised. The unrestricted "right" to an abortion up to the moment of birth and beyond the reach of state or local regulation is Roe while the level of misinformation that colors the debate is enormous. The demagougery which frames the issue for the average voter speaks for itself.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 14, 2003 1:22 PM

It's not as if the anti-choice side doesn't resort to demogogery, also.

That more women apparently choose not to have abortions can only be good news. For one, it must mean they are, at least in part, taking advantage of means to prevent pregnancy in the first place. After all, if expressions of opposition are equivalent to a decision in the face of the eventuality, then we should be seeing a corresponding increase in births to unwed mothers. That seems to not be the case.

However, the decision should still rest with the individual woman. It is all well and good to express opposition (I, for one, haven't noticed anti-choice positions being particularly silenced), but imposition of one particular choice upon someone who bears the entire burden, but doesn't share the point of view, is tyranny, pure and simple.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 14, 2003 4:02 PM


Tell it to the baby.

Posted by: oj at September 14, 2003 4:09 PM

Two things that I've wondered about: what are the effects on the first generation to live with the fact that their mothers could have aborted them at any time and maybe women are realizing they lost power of the moral high ground that they had enjoyed for millenium.

Posted by: Buttercup at September 14, 2003 8:00 PM


Read "Mother Nature" by Sarah Hrdy.

For time immemorial women have been getting rid of unwanted pregnancies. Up until modern medicine, the typical method was to expose the neonate.

This is scarcely the first generation of women to wonder if their mothers could have ended their lives.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 14, 2003 10:12 PM


Geez, now they're still only "pregnancies" even after birth. Do you agree with Peter Singer that there should be a trial period during which you can decide whether you want to keep or kill the thing?

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 12:14 AM


Please re-read the sentence. The whole thing. The first part, unwanted pregnancy, leads to the second, a neonate. My vocabulary may be failing me here, but I'm reasonably certain the definition for neonate is not "pregnancy after birth."

Never mind the terminology, the point I was making to Buttercup remains.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 15, 2003 11:48 AM

ne·o·nate Audio pronunciation of neonate ( P ) Pronunciation Key (n-nt)

A newborn infant, especially one less than four weeks old.

Posted by: oj at September 15, 2003 11:53 AM

Mr. Guinn:

But we are the first generation to have widespread and accepted abortion. I'm not aware of any society in the past where getting rid of unwanted pregnancies was so celebrated. I'm well aware that abortion has been around as long as humans have been. So has murder and other sins.

Posted by: Buttercup at September 15, 2003 11:53 PM