Five decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing abortion as a constitutional right, Roe v. Wade still remains a highly contentious issue dividing our country. For many, abortion has become a controversy that pits a women’s right to control her body against a fetus’ right to life.
The terms, “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice,” refer to the dominant positions on abortion, forcibly placing people into two ‘boxes’ based on religion, morality, politics, and even practicality.
The terms, “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice,” refer to the dominant positions on abortion, forcibly placing people into two ‘boxes’ based on religion, morality, politics, and even practicality. Opponents of abortion (who identify with“Pro-life” side) often condemm it on religious and ethical grounds, asserting that abortion is an unethical termination of a viable human life. Those who promote a woman’s right to an abortion (or “Pro-choice”) contend that access to a safe abortion is a human right.
“Pro-life” supporters conjecture that abortion should be banned, but there has been an incipient rethinking about what it means to be “Pro-life.” Historically, some activists condoned abortion in limited cases, such as rape or incest. Today the issue is infused with absolutism and a prominent reason that Amy Coney Barrett, a justice who may overturn Roe v. Wade, was nominated as a Supreme Court justice. “She meets my standard of having evidence in the record, out there in public, on the record, that indicates that she understands that Roe was really an act of judicial imperialism that was wrongly decided,” said Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.
On the other hand, pro-choice proponents support the legalization and accessibility of the procedure on the grounds of equality and autonomy. Within the movement, some advocate that no restriction whatsoever should be placed on abortion.
According to a recent May 2020 Gallup poll, 53% of U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances,” while 25% favor it being legal with no restrictions and 21% think it should be completely illegal. Approximately 862,320 women had abortions in 2017. An estimated 32,000 rape victims become pregnant each year (National Institutes of Health), and 100,000 cases of incest occur annually (National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect). Two thirds of teenage pregnancies are not planned, because a majority do not have adequate access to contraceptives (NARAL Pro-Choice America).
The court’s 1973 ruling has reignited a furor among anti-abortionist proponents. The paramount concern evoking such anger surrounds the fetus’s right to life. Pro-lifers generally argue that conception is the beginning of life and, therefore, abortion destroys a life. Fervent opposers to any abortion believe all abortion is murder and remain tightly focused on ending legal abortion. They call on to the Supreme Court to accord the same constitutional rights to the fetus as they do to its mother.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that restrictive abortion laws were unconstitutional and violated a woman’s right to privacy. Their decision determined that an unborn fetus is not a person in the legal sense. However, the Supreme Court postulated through its decision that the government “has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interest grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.” They also established that the decision to abort a pregnancy, during the first trimester, was the exclusive choice of a woman and her physician.
The decision also permitted state governments to initiate regulation during the second trimester and to ban abortion at the point of viability, the stage in pregnancy when fetal movements can be felt, except in cases where the mother’s health is in jeopardy. The point at which viability is reached during a pregnancy remains a topic of debate, and the ambiguity of the term contributes further to the uncertainty over the constitutionality of restrictions on abortions.
However, the Supreme Court did clearly rule that the unborn fetus had no constitutional rights until the third trimester. Prior to this stage of pregnancy, the fetus is considered incapable of surviving independently from the mother.
State legislatures have decreed numerous laws restricting and regulating access to an abortion. Iowa enacted one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws in 2018 after Governor Kim Reynolds approved a bill that prevented doctors from performing an abortion if a fetal heart beat were detected. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than 1,074 laws have been enacted to limit access to the procedure since 1973. More than a quarter of these laws were passed between 2010 and 2015. Still, several of these laws have been challenged in federal courts.
Those who support abortion see it as a human rights issue rather than a moral question. “Pro-choicers” stress a woman's right to control her own body, arguing that only she has the right to decide whether a pregnancy should be terminated. Proponents insist that abortion protects women mentally and physically. Germaine Greer once said that “to become a mother without wanting to, is to live like a slave or a domestic animal.”
For many women, the loss of Justice Ginsburg invoked a distinct kind of anguish. It was not so much the grief of Democrats harrowing over Trump’s announcement of his intention to expeditiously fill Ginburg’s court seat. Rather it was also the loss of her tireless work for women and her understanding of the jurisprudence of women’s rights.
Pro-lifers viewed the matter differently and jumped at the chance to shape the high court. Social conservatives pushed for the swift confirmation of Judge Barret, recognizing that their long-repudiated grail of decisively shifting the Supreme Court to the right lied within reach.
The recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court puts Roe at risk of being overturned. During her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Barrett offered little insight into how she might view the landmark decision. But if her past decision and statements are indicative of how she would rule on abortion rights, she may conceivably provide the fifth vote needed to overturn Roe v. Wade.
If this were to occur, abortion access would decline as the procedure became illegal in 22 states. Forty one percent of women of childbearing age would see their nearest abortion clinic shut down, increasing the average travel distance from 36 miles to 280 miles. These clinics would grapple with the increased demand, and the number of legal abortions in the U.S. would plausibly decline by 14 percent, or an estimated 100,000 annual legal abortions.
Nine justices have the power to control the outcome of the abortion controversy. With a six-justice conservative majority, the high court may be on its way to overturning the landmark decision, but, as Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, whom President Eisenhower appointed as a conservative but who ended up spearheading the end of legal segregation, we cannot know for certain how a judge will rule when confronted with a particular case.