Sober thoughtfulness will be needed in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling upholding the authority of Congress to refuse to pay for most abortions for needy women, even when they are said to be medically necessary. the issue is a highly controversial one and the danger is that emotionalism may overshadow rational discourse on some of the larger moral and other issues involved. The very closeness of the Supreme Court vote -- 5 to 4 -- reflects the polarized national mood and indicates the need for calm consideration.
What does the trend toward more and more abortions say about society? What are the moral and physical costs of abortion? What can be done to diminish the practice? These questions ought not to be ignored.
With respect to the court's decision itself, there are many who feel it will unjustly and inhumanely work hardship on indigent women who seek abortions for prescribed health reasons. At issue in the high court ruling, however, was the right of Congress to decide how public funds shall be spent. The majority of the justices reasoned that, although the law protects an individual's freedom of choice against unwarranted government interference, this does not mean the individual is entitled to such money as may be needed to realize all the advantages of that freedom. "To hold otherwise would mark a drastic change in our understanding of the Constitution," Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the majority opinion.
It is now left to Congress and to state legislatures to decide whether or not to use public funds for poor women's abortions. After the high court's ruling it is expected that many states will put restrictions into effect. But this is not likely to end public debate over what seems the unfairness of the federal and state laws limiting abortion funding and over what ought to be done legislatively to remedy this.
As discussion of this complex and sensitive issue continues, however, the public should not lose sight of the fact that the Supreme Court left intact the right of a woman to exercise freedom of choice regarding abortion. Also, the present law does provide that poor women can qualify for federally financed abortions in cases of rape or incest or where it is medically determined the mother's life is endangered.
Nor should it be assumed that, as a result of the court's ruling poor women will automatically and in every case be forced to turn to illicit and dangerous operations.Some jurisdictions will continue to finance medically prescribed abortions. In addition, charities may provide funds for such procedures, and some medical clinics, out of public interest, already are reducing abortion fees for the indigent just as they do for other medical categories. Humanitarian concern could spur such actions from many quarters.
One welcome aspect of the Supreme Court decision is that, while it refuels the political issue of abortion, it may leave legislators less willing to support the drive of "pro-life" groups for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion. While opposed to abortion, we believe the choice should be left to individual conscience. A constitutional confrontation already divided on this and other issues and needing, instead, to be unified around common national purposes and goals.
Moreover, the public focus, in our view, ought to be on the larger question of why in fact there are so many abortions and how this may be affecting society in general. Some 1.4 million abortions are being performed annually (about one-fifth for women on welfare). The number of abortions and, worse still, repeated abortions among teenagers is rising at a troubling rate. These trends are cause for national concern. In the early ywars after abortion was ruled lawful little thought may have been given to the harm of the practice. But it is becoming increasingly evident that abortion not only is not the panacea some have thought it to be but also brings with it severe physical and mental stress.
The question is whether Americans want a society in which the prevention of birth after conception becomes a generally accepted practice. the need, rather, is to get at the root of the problems driving so many women to the painful choice of terminating a pregnancy. The factor of sexual morality, among others, is conspicously missing from public discussion. Yet the unhappy fact is that society has come to tolerate and even condone the climate of sexual freedom in which easy sex and easy abortion thrive. These days much of the effort of social workers, family counselors, educators, and even parents themselves seems directed more at pushing contraceptives on young people than at fostering standards of sexual morality and maturity. The mass news media, for their part, do little by their obsession with sex but encourage the moral laxness.
The Supreme Court's latest decision may long be the subject of debate and it deserves examination in itself. But we hope it will be seen as an opportune occasion to reflect on the broader issues: the dangers to the nation's moral and spiritual standards, the nobler directions in which society ought to be headed, and the demands confronting eac individual to play a worthy part. Surely no one believes that more and more abortions are the answer.