One of the most personal of all decisions is whether to bear a child. When government plays any role in that decision, no matter what the role, the personal becomes political--and inevitably embroiled in controversy. That is what has happened to the abortion question, and that is why the anniversary observed today of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion is more than just another anniversary.
In this country's early days the government was relatively silent about abortion. But by the mid-19th Century laws were passed regulating abortion to protect women's health in a time of less-than-antiseptic medical practices and to keep non-professionals from performing the operations. Those laws were later preserved with the aid of religious organizations that viewed abortion as immoral.
By 1973 the tide of opinion had changed. Abortion, while not necessarily a favored method of preventing an unwanted pregnancy, was viewed by many as a private decision.
The Roe vs. Wade decision, striking down a Texas anti-abortion law, stirred forces that have yet to be stilled. Their influence may be waning, however. They rarely have the strength today to pass their initiatives, especially on the federal level. They do retain great power to block legislation and to curtail the spending of federal money on abortions for poor women.
The fight to preserve the legal right to choose to have an abortion goes on. In cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania and Illinois are trying to stretch the state's legitimate role of protecting women's health to cover requirements that would deter women from having abortions. The Reagan Administration has gone so far as to ask the court to overturn Roe vs. Wade completely; that simply won't happen. In Congress, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) were beaten last year in attempts to cut off money to family-planning clinics making abortion referrals. The question is bound to come up again this year when Congress considers extending the family-planning program.
Anti-abortion groups are also active on the state and local levels, although there, too, is a hint of weakness. Ballot measures opposing abortion were defeated last fall in cities in Connecticut and New Hampshire. A group of Californians failed to get enough signatures on a deceptive ballot initiative that would have outlawed state spending for abortions for poor women by diverting the money to a fund for handicapped children.
This abortion debate did not begin on Jan. 22, 1973, and it obviously won't end this January. It won't end while the President is squarely on the side of those who seek more government control over reproductive choices. Taking abortion out of the purview of government and thus out of politics seems an insurmountable task. But the effort must go on. As it does, it is reassuring that the majority of Americans polled and the weight of the law remain firmly on the side of a woman's right to make up her own mind.