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Why Abortion Is the Albatross Of US Politics

Coming 'partial birth' abortion vote in Senate is next venue for perpetual war.

Most Americans would probably rather not think about abortion. Yet the images keep returning:

Clinics are bombed and abortion doctors gunned down. Activists stage protests, while Congress takes dozens of votes on abortion-related matters. Just about every politician down to the level of dog-catcher, it seems, must declare a position - "pro-choice" or "pro-life."

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And quietly, in the center, sit the pregnant women, wrestling with perhaps the most difficult decision of their lives.

Like no other social issue, abortion has seeped into every corner of political life in America. And like no other country, the United States is at war with itself over the question of whose rights should prevail, those of a fetus or those of a woman.

As the Senate prepares for a May vote on banning "partial birth" abortions, a fundamental question persists: Why is America so tied up in knots over abortion?

In part, it's because the procedure is so prevalent. In 1994, 1.4 million abortions were performed in the US, or 24 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age - a decline from previous years but still the highest among Western democracies.

But the depth of emotion can also be traced, say activists and scholars, to some uniquely American elements:

* The political assertiveness of religious conservatives in a heavily church-going country.

*A high level of concern for the independence of women.

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*A deep ambivalence about sex and birth control.

An important element that fueled America's war over abortion, say some observers, was the unexpected breadth of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide in one dramatic stroke.

Roe's revolution and the abortion war

IN the years before the decision, some states had begun to reform their anti-abortion laws, and a few had repealed them outright. Voters defeated some repeal initiatives. But the Roe ruling swept aside that state-by-state approach and legalized abortion in all 50 states on grounds of privacy.

"We live in a democracy where people are used to having issues debated," says Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee. "That was all taken out of our hands. [Legalized abortion] was forced upon us by nine people on a court."

Abortion foes also argue, but the broadly written opinion gave the US the most liberal laws on abortion in the West. The Roe decision says states may not protect "fetal life" until after viability - the point at which a baby could survive outside the womb, now as early as 23 weeks of gestation. After viability, states may ban abortion but aren't required to.

Some abortion-rights advocates acknowledge that the Supreme Court ruled more broadly in Roe than it was asked to. But they don't agree that Roe was out of step with public attitudes or with actual practices.

In 1972, the year preceding Roe, demand for legal abortion clearly existed: Some 600,000 legal procedures were performed in the US in the few states that allowed them, such as New York.

Moreover, between 1966 and 1972 public opinion shifted. Gallup surveys showed that strong opposition to abortion (except in cases of rape, incest, or protecting the mother's life) had softened. A slight majority now favored allowing the decision to be made between a woman and her doctor.

In 1972, the usually conservative American Bar Association said that abortion should be legal during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. The court itself produced a decisive majority - 7 to 2 - in Roe.

But even if Roe jumped ahead of democratic debate, in effect, "we've been having that debate post facto," says Jeannie Rosoff, president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, a research group that favors abortion rights.

This debate has led to a slight retreat from Roe. Supreme Court rulings in 1989 and 1992 preserved the basic tenets of Roe, but they allowed for some state restriction on early abortions.

The 1992 high-court ruling in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey marked "a definitive moment in abortion history and politics in the US," says Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice. This ruling struck a balance between protecting the constitutional right to abortion and acknowledging public attitudes about limiting that right. In the Casey ruling, the court approved waiting periods and counseling requirements for women seeking abortions.

By contrast, in Western Europe restrictions like these were included from the start in laws legalizing abortion. European laws also convey the sentiment that abortion is regrettable - a view absent from Roe, even though most Americans would concur.

In fact, it may be that the way Europe legalized abortion - and the ways the laws were written - helped cool any possible pro-life backlash. But the recent rise of anti-abortion movements in some parts of Europe, particularly in England, shows that democratically drafted laws can go only so far to dampen debate on this incendiary subject.

Convictions of a church-going nation

UNLIKE the nations of Europe, America is a country of church-goers; its people hold their religious beliefs dear. For some, when the church teaches that life begins at conception abortion is ruled out absolutely.

This rock-solid belief leaves no room for compromise. When coupled with the active role that religious groups play in US politics, the conviction fuels a potent force.

"Religions in the US are organized politically in a way that organized religion in Europe is not," says Ms. Kissling, who notes that, throughout Europe, governments aid religious groups. "I wouldn't say they're bought off, but they have considerations in terms of how they interact with the public."

The effect, she says, is that European religious groups steer clear of the public arena, unlike US groups such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Christian Coalition.

In this country, despite all the activism on both ends of the issue, there is some common ground. Most abortion-rights supporters don't reject all moral arguments. For instance, feminist author Ellen Chesler says that while she can't buy the moral argument against abortions early in pregnancy, she can concede that "a viable fetus is another set of moral arguments."

Furthermore, many church-goers (some polls show a majority) embrace a pro-choice position. For some it stems from a belief that government's role in their lives should be limited, especially on matters such as family-planning or religious practices.

But for abortion-rights supporters, the common ground crumbles over the absoluteness of the other side's argument - and the lack of discussion about the range of factors that go into a woman's decision about how to handle an unintended pregnancy.

They argue that the moral debate on abortion must include consideration of what happens to children after they're born. "We never spend time on the moral responsibility in childbearing," says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Yet another aspect of abortion that sits below the surface, often left undiscussed, is race and class. A disproportionate number of abortions take place among poor and minority women. (See fact box above right.) At times, advocates of abortion rights shy away from the issue for fear of appearing to favor "selective breeding" - that is, the continued abortion of minority babies. But as white religious conservatives, including the Christian Coalition, try to make inroads into African-American churches, the issue may gain prominence.

Why US abortion rate is so high

IF the US has a strong anti-abortion streak in its public consciousness, why then does it have the highest abortion rate in the West?

One answer lies in the US health-care system. Many health plans don't cover contraception. For women who rely on subsidized family-planning clinics, birth control may still be beyond their reach financially. Also, information about birth-control methods and services is inconsistent.

Research shows that 10 percent of sexually active women don't use birth control; this segment accounts for more than half of all unplanned pregnancies.

But this means the rest of unplanned pregnancies occur among women who are using contraception, but are using it ineffectively, inconsistently, or are simply experiencing the normal failure rate of birth-control methods.

Abortion-rights activists, who want to reduce demand for abortion, argue for greater access to low-cost contraception and a wider variety of methods.

But drug companies have shied away from developing new methods in recent years, in part for fear of litigation and controversy. The US Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of emergency contraceptive pills - the so-called "morning after" pill. But no drug company has stepped forward to sell or market it.

Some pro-life groups argue that promotion of birth control actually leads to more abortions. "You're loosening the strictures of sex outside of marriage, so you get more sex [and more birth-control failures] and therefore more abortions," says Gracie Hsu of the Family Research Council.

Abortion-rights advocates counter that the sexual genie is already out of the bottle; sex before marriage is already widely practiced, especially among adults. So hindering access to birth control, they say, won't necessarily cut down on sexual activity, they say.

They also point to new international data to prove their point: In Russia, Ukraine, Chile, Colombia, and South Korea, greater access to effective birth control in recent years has lowered abortion rates.

Sixty-three percent of abortions in the US are performed on unmarried women. Conservative groups think the answer to these women's future needs is not birth control but sexual abstinence.

"Easy availability of abortion ... is seen first and foremost as evidence of acceptance of sexual freedom," says David Garrow, a historian. "And what America has a problem with is sexual freedom."

For Ms. Chesler, the feminist author, America's continuing debate on abortion signals continuing unease with the place of women in society. The ability to control fertility has been crucial to women's battle for equality with men in the workplace.

For feminists, efforts to roll back abortion rights mean nothing less than an attempt to send women back to their traditional occupations of wife and mother.

America tilts toward restricting abortion

IF there's one point that both sides agree on, it's that the conflict will never end. For one thing, interest groups will almost ensure that, by depicting the battle in as dire terms as possible in order to raise money.

But that doesn't mean the debate won't evolve. The advent of technology that photographs fetal development - and demonstrates the humanness of a fetus just weeks after conception - has boosted the cause of abortion foes. So has the recent focus on "partial birth" abortions, in which a fetus is taken part way down the birth canal and, if it is still alive, terminated by a medical procedure. Then delivery is completed.

"I can see [society] going more toward a pro-life position, but that's not going to eliminate abortion," says Marvin Olasky, an author who opposes abortion. "Even in the 19th century, when there really was more in the way of social constraints, we still had abortion."

Mr. Olasky also sees a decline in the perception that abortion is a good, liberating thing. He points to the position of writers such as Naomi Wolf as representing a shift in social thought that may become more prevalent. Ms. Wolf supports the right to choose but views abortion as "a necessary evil."

Elsewhere on the technology front, the coming availability of the abortion drug RU-486 - which in theory could eventually be prescribed by any doctor - is seen by some as a breakthrough that will take some abortions out of clinics and into doctors' offices.

But given the fervor of anti-abortion groups, which have vowed to picket doctors who prescribe RU-486, that's not likely to end the war.

Some activists on both sides of the debate have formed a "common ground" movement to find areas of agreement, such as helping young unwed mothers. But the effort remains peripheral.

The core conflict - the woman versus the baby - remains as powerful as ever.


* More than 50 percent of pregnancies among American women are unintended. Half of those end in abortion.

* 55 percent of US women obtaining abortions are younger than 25. Women age 20 to 24 have 33 percent of all abortions; teens obtain 22 percent.

* Two-thirds of women having abortions intend to have children in the future.

* White women obtain 61 percent of all abortions. Black women are nearly three times as likely to have abortions as whites. Hispanics are twice as likely.

* Women who report no religious affiliation are about four times more likely to have abortions than are women who do report an affiliation.

* Roman Catholics are 29 percent more likely than Protestants to have an abortion.

* Two-thirds of all abortions are obtained by women who have never been married.

* In the Reagan and Bush years, when Democrats controlled Congress, the House and Senate averaged nine votes per year that dealt with abortion. In 1995 and '96 alone, with Republicans in control, Congress had 53 votes that touched on abortion.

Sources: The Alan Guttmacher Institute and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League

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