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WASHINGTON LETTER Jan-27-2006 (900 words) Backgrounder and analysis. xxxn

What will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned? States will decide

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As Judge Samuel Alito Jr. moved toward Senate confirmation to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court, the voices of those working to keep abortion legal in the United States were getting more worried.

"Roe hangs by a thread on the Supreme Court," said NARAL Pro-Choice America in its 2006 report on "The Status of Women's Reproductive Rights in the United States," referring to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision lifting most state restrictions on abortion.

"And while existing restrictions are numerous and significant, if the court were to overturn Roe, the outlook for women in much of the United States is bleak," the report added.

Alito "poses a direct threat to women's health and safety," said Karen Pearl, interim president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement Jan. 24, the day the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Alito's nomination.

"His long record of hostility toward women's rights and privacy rights make him a wholly unsuitable replacement" for O'Connor, Pearl added.

Some of the rhetoric on the matter has seemed to imply that as soon as Alito takes his place on the court, abortion clinics across the country will shut down and hundreds of women will be forced to wander the back alleys of the nation looking for illegal abortions.

That's not true, of course.

What will happen -- if the Supreme Court accepts a case challenging Roe and then votes to overturn the 33-year-old decision -- is that each state will decide if and how to regulate abortion within its own jurisdiction. In short, no one really knows the outcome.

True, at least four states -- South Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana -- have enacted or are considering laws that would prohibit abortion in the state if Roe is overturned. Another four -- Alaska, Florida, Minnesota and Montana -- have provisions in their state constitutions that would keep abortion legal even if abortion is banned at the federal level. Four others -- Alabama, Delaware, Massachusetts and Wisconsin -- have pre-Roe laws against abortion on the books that have not been overturned by the courts.

But any of that could be changed by legislative action or a court ruling before or after a Roe-related case comes before the Supreme Court.

On the federal level, the Right to Life Act -- which would guarantee equal protection under the 14th Amendment "for the right to life of each born and preborn human person" -- has 70 co-sponsors in the House but has been pending without action since its introduction nearly a year ago.

NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy center in New York working to keep abortion legal, both say that if Roe were overturned about 20 states would be likely to ban abortion, another 20 would keep it legal and the other 10 states and the District of Columbia could go either way.

But even those organizations don't agree on which states would go which way.

It's important to remember, too, that in the years before Roe, the U.S. was not abortion-free. Colorado was the first state, in 1967, to permit abortions in some circumstances.

By the end of 1972, according to the National Right to Life Committee, 13 states had laws that allowed abortions in cases of rape, incest or fetal deformity or when the mother's mental or physical health was endangered. Another 31 states permitted abortion to save a woman's life.

In survey results released to coincide with the 33rd anniversary of Roe, Zogby International found a dramatic shift in public sentiment on abortion since the 1990s.

Although a slight majority (52 percent) still favored abortion in some circumstances, only 42 percent approved of government financing for abortions and 43 percent opposed abortion in most cases.

"What's striking to me is that the numbers were radically different 10 years ago," said John Zogby, president and CEO of the polling company, in a statement. "Ten years ago, maybe just seven or eight years ago, pro-choice forces were in the ascendancy and posted pro-choice numbers in the area of 65 percent to 68 percent."

In a report released Jan. 23 by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, said state laws requiring informed consent or parental involvement before abortions did much to bring the number of abortions down in the 1990s, after two decades of rising numbers.

"Overall, this research finds that value shifts have little impact on the incidence of abortion," New wrote. "Conversely, enacted legislation results in statistically significant reductions in abortion rates and ratios."

Deirdre McQuade, director of planning and information for the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, believes state regulation of abortions and court actions that narrow the scope of Roe v. Wade both are important in building "a culture of life."

But perhaps more important, she said, are policies at all levels of society that show a commitment "to support women in making good choices" -- everything from fair wages to adequate day care to "life-affirming legislation" on adoption.

Only then, McQuade said, will the U.S. become a society in which abortion "is not seen as the solution to a problem" and a place where abortion is considered "unthinkable and unnecessary."


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