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Choice Vs. Life

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Clearly 1985 has been a year of confrontation, beginning as it did with abortion clinics in rubble after pro-life bombers had struck. The face-off, between those who give priority to the life of the fetus and those who champion a woman’s right to choose abortion if desired, escalated further in the spring, with rallies in the streets of Washington and rhetoric in Congress. Now the Justice Department, with President Reagan’s approval, is weighing in, asking the Supreme Court to repeal its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion (see box, page 72).

That 7-to-2 decision gave a woman the right to terminate her pregnancy in the first three months. Further, the Court ruled, states may regulate abortion during the second trimester only to protect the mother’s health. In the final three months of pregnancy, states may regulate or ban abortions altogether, unless the life or health of the woman is threatened. Prior to Roe vs. Wade, it was illegal in 33 states for a person to perform an abortion in virtually all cases—and in 11 states it was also illegal for the woman to obtain one.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, terminating unwanted pregnancies has become the most common surgical procedure in the U.S. for women of reproductive age. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, there have been more than 16 million abortions nationwide since 1973, a number roughly equal to the populations of Illinois and Indiana combined. Today one in every four pregnancies in the U.S. ends in abortion.

Now the Administration is asking the Justices to “return the law to the condition in which it was before that [Roe vs. Wade] case was decided.” The Reagan argument: “The textual, doctrinal and historical basis for Roe vs. Wade is so far flawed and…is a source of such instability in the law that this Court should…abandon it.”

Reaction to the Administration’s July 15 move was explosive. In New Orleans, where the National Organization for Women held its annual convention at the Fairmont Hotel, pickets outside carried signs that read Abortion Is Murder and Save the Baby and sang “Reagan is on our side” to the tune of We Shall Overcome. Inside the hotel NOW delegates chanted “We will not go back,” and president-elect Eleanor Smeal cried, “It’s time to go back into the streets and onto the campuses.” And should the Supreme Court overturn its 1973 decision, “you’ll see this movement explode in size,” Smeal predicted.

Although Court watchers speculate that one Justice might change his views, it is unlikely that the Court—which two years ago, by a 6-to-3 margin, struck down restrictions against abortion drawn up by the city of Akron, Ohio—will reverse itself at this time. But five Justices are at least 76 years old. Should even one or two of them retire and be replaced by conservative Reagan appointees, the balance on the Court could tilt against Roe.

Meanwhile, nothing is likely to lower the intensity of the opposing views on abortion. The pro-life cause received a powerful boost last January with the appearance of The Silent Scream, a 28-minute film that claims to document an abortion “from the victim’s viewpoint.” Through computer-enhanced ultrasound images, the movie purports to depict graphically the destruction of a 12-week-old fetus in the womb. “If every member of Congress could see that film,” President Reagan said in an endorsement, “they would move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion.” Groups such as the Crusade for Life and the National Right to Life Committee saw to it that videocassette copies (retailing at $100 each) got blanket distribution on Capitol Hill and in many state houses.

With its own panel of medical experts, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America has attacked the film as a distortion “riddled with medical, legal and scientific inaccuracies.” Portions of the footage, critics contend, were speeded up to project the illusion of a fetus thrashing in terror. Indeed, many doctors doubt that the brain and nervous system of a first-trimester fetus are sufficiently developed to enable it to feel pain.

In May the National Abortion Rights Action League kicked off a yearlong “Silent No More” campaign with a “speak-out” in Washington, D.C. at which 1500 letters from women detailing their abortion experiences received public readings. To further convince legislators, NOW is gearing up its “Campaign to Save Women’s Lives” and plans to present a million-signature petition to policymakers in Washington next January.

Opinion polls over two decades have consistently demonstrated that a majority of Americans (more than 80 percent in one survey) support the right to an abortion under certain circumstances—when a pregnancy endangers the life of a mother or results from rape or incest. But there is unease concerning abortions for elective reasons. An ABC News poll last January found only 56 percent approved of an abortion when “the family cannot afford to have the child.”

In the first year after the Supreme Court ruling, reported abortion cases numbered slightly less than 750,000, according to the Guttmacher Institute. By 1981 that figure had climbed to 1.58 million annually. (The number has since declined slightly.) Among other findings of the Guttmacher studies: More than 91 percent of reported abortions occur in the first trimester and only a fraction of 1 percent in the third. The abortion rate of nonwhites is approximately twice that for whites, but about 70 percent of recorded abortions are obtained by white women, who form the largest segment of the U.S. population. The abortion rate is highest (62 per 1,000) in the 18-to-19 age group. Average cost of an abortion: $193 at abortion clinics, $207 in other clinics and $241 in physicians’ offices. About 19 percent of women who terminate their pregnancies are married.

Advances in medicine have added to the abortion muddle and indeed, according to the Justice Department’s “friend-of-the-court” brief, make Roe’s division into trimesters “inherently unworkable.” In 1973 a fetus could rarely survive outside the womb earlier than the 28th week of pregnancy. Today preemies can sometimes be saved through intensive care at 24 weeks. As a result many doctors—to play it safe—simply refuse to perform abortions beyond 20 or 22 weeks.

Meanwhile, religious groups ranging from the Catholic Church to the Moral Majority have made abortion a test of politics as well as of faith. Yet, in the conflict of private conscience and public morality, the lines may not be as irrevocably drawn as the shrillest advocates on either side would suggest. On the pages following, PEOPLE tells the stories of nine women who have undergone abortions. Subsequent issues will include a report on an abortion clinic and an interview with a noted ethicist on the agonizing moral issues of the abortion question.