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Special Report

How The Abortion Debate Has Changed

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

Roe v. Wade

WASHINGTON (Jan. 19) -- Twenty-five years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled a Texas anti-abortion law violated a woman's constitutional right to privacy, Justice Harry Blackmun tried to carve out a centrist compromise in his opinion for the majority.

Blackmun sought to balance a woman's privacy rights against the state's interest in protecting "the potentiality of human life."

Anti-abortion forces call what the court decided in January 1973 "abortion on demand" -- and hate it.

2000 Hopefuls
Differ On Abortion

Abortion rights supporters, far from celebrating as the 25th anniversary of the decision approaches, say they are losing ground to a systematic chipping away of abortion rights at the state level. But the Roe v. Wade decision remains the law of the land.

Today's debate over abortion remains as harsh and partisan as ever. But it has moved away from Blackmun's center to a grab bag of second-tier issues: parental consent, insurance coverage for abortions for federal employees, money for family planning and contraception services, U.S. aid to international family planning groups, a ban on abortions in overseas U.S. military hospitals, rules for protestors who attempt to blockade abortion clinics and, perhaps most emotional of all, a form of late-term abortions that opponents refer to as "partial-birth abortion" and others call "intact dilation and extraction."

At one time or another, all these questions have been at the forefront of the debate. They serve as stand-ins for the real issue the court decided a quarter century ago: Should abortion be legal, and under what circumstances?


Today's abortion debate has even blocked congressional action on two seemingly unrelated issues: past-due U.S. payments to the United Nations and additional funding for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a key player in attempts to resolve the Asian financial crisis. Anti-abortion forces in Congress tied the issue of international family planning funds to the U.N. and IMF money last fall, and congressional leaders are still looking for a way out.

Much of the political activity in Washington last year focused on a proposed late-term abortion ban, but the sound and fury had no immediate effect. Congress has been unable to approve a late-term abortion ban by margins large enough to override President Bill Clinton's veto.

The House passed the latest bill by a veto-proof 295-136 margin, but the Senate passed it by only 64-36, three votes short of the 67 needed to override. In the coming year, anti-abortion forces say overriding the Clinton's veto will be one of their top goals.


After Clinton blocked the legislation last Oct. 10, Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.) said, "Now Bill Clinton will go down in history as the president whose veto had to be overridden in order to protect the innocent babies from a brutal, heinous death."

In contrast to the action on Capitol Hill, opponents of late-term abortions have made considerable headway at the state level. By October 1997, 15 states had outlawed the procedure.

Even within the ranks of opponents of late-term abortion, the issue can be divisive. Some Republicans want the party to deny financial aid to GOP candidates who do not oppose late-term abortions, but some party leaders see that as needlessly divisive.

For supporters of abortion rights, the late 1990s have been a time of incremental abortion restrictions enacted at the state level, even while the basic constitutional right to choose remains in place. Supporters of abortion rights worry the other side is whittling away at access in ways that could ultimately render the Roe decision hollow.


"We're not losing the war, but the other side's gaining ground," Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) told reporters last week. In the league's annual survey, 31 states enacted 55 abortion restrictions last year, compared to 14 restrictions approved in 1996.

In Congress, abortion rights supporters were on the defensive last year, trying to respond to the graphic descriptions of late-term abortions offered by opponents, and reeling from an admission by abortion rights supporter Ron Fitzsimmons that he lied when he said only a few hundred late-term abortions were done in the U.S. each year.


Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y), a supporter of abortion rights, told Congressional Quarterly recently she wants to go on the offensive this year, with a legislative agenda to expand insurance coverage for contraceptive costs, more support for family planning clinics, and expanded efforts to combat teen pregnancy.

All of the proposals have the potential to reduce the need for abortions, a worthwhile goal for people on all sides of the issue.

And in fact, the number of abortions in the U.S. is falling. The total declined 5 percent from 1994 to 1995, according to the latest statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1.4 million in 1990, the total declined to 1.21 million in 1995.

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