Many Seem Ambivalent on Impact of Roe vs. Wade Ruling on Abortion

Times Staff Writer

Chicago’s Cook County Hospital called it the “septic patients ward,” but it was actually a chamber of medical horrors. When shame or poverty drove women to gamble on illegal abortion, the septic ward was where they often ended up.

Dr. Quentin Young did a few weeks of his internship there in the late 1940s, each day seeing 20 new victims of botched abortions and trying to repair the damage. Later, whenever he had to face a patient who was determined to end an unwanted pregnancy, the memories of those desperate women would haunt him.

“I had years of genuine anguish,” recalls Young, who later became chairman of the hospital’s department of medicine. “What I had seen made me unwilling to throw anybody out into that unsafe world, yet I had nothing to offer them” as an alternative.


Well before the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal in 1973, most people had come to agree that there was something wrong with an outright ban on abortion. All but three states had passed laws to allow it in some circumstances, and four--Arkansas, Hawaii, New York and Washington--permitted it for any reason.

Form of Birth Control

With abortion rights once again under threat, Young is adamant that the procedure should remain available to women who want it. But he worries that it has become “the ultimate form of birth control. . . . It’s not a good thing that it’s used that way.”

Today’s statistics are troublesome, even to those who fought to make abortion legal. One in four pregnancies now ends in abortion, giving the United States one of the highest abortion rates in the industrialized world. About 40% of the women getting abortions have had them before.

Activists on both sides may shout their views without a trace of uncertainty, but like Young, most Americans seem ambivalent about where the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe vs. Wade decision has taken this country.

Polls Show Contradiction

Recent polls show an unreconcilable contradiction in the views of most Americans. On the one hand, they express solid support for the idea of allowing a woman, not the government, to choose whether she will have an abortion. But in the same surveys, they also say abortion should be against the law in most of the instances where it is used.

For 16 years, politicians and voters did not have to reckon with these inconsistencies, because Roe vs. Wade protected the right to an abortion.


Legislators seeking to placate abortion foes without arousing pro-choice forces always had an easy out: They routinely approved new restrictions on abortion, well aware that judges would quickly knock them down.

Now, however, the Supreme Court may once again throw the entire question back into the political arena, when it rules on the constitutionality of a Missouri law imposing relatively narrow restrictions on abortion.

The Bush Administration has urged that the Missouri case be used to overturn Roe vs. Wade entirely. Even if the court upholds only the Missouri law, it will send a strong signal that its new conservative majority is ready to start dismantling abortion rights. Anti-abortion groups also expect to find allies among the scores of conservative Ronald Reagan appointees who now dominate many federal appeals courts.

‘Back to Drawing Board’

“If we lose, it’s back to the drawing board; if we don’t, it’s full speed ahead,” says Susan Carpenter McMillan, president of the Right to Life League of Southern California.

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, agrees. If the court allows any part of the Missouri law to stand, she says, “it opens the door all across the country. They’re going to test the limits in every state.”

Abortion, an issue that barely registered on the political radar of state elections recently, could suddenly hit lawmakers with hurricane force.

“Our Legislature will stop dead in its tracks. They won’t be able to get anything else done,” predicts Sue Rockne, a Democratic national committeewoman and pro-choice activist from Minnesota.

Judging from the actions they have taken in the years since Roe vs. Wade, most states would put significant restrictions on abortion, and many would try to make it almost impossible to get one. Among those expected to move most quickly: Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Minnesota, Idaho and Louisiana.

California, which protects the right to an abortion in its state Constitution, is generally expected to remain in the pro-choice camp.

However, California is one of only about 10 states where abortion rights activists are reasonably confident they can prevail. An equal number of states already have laws on their books expressing an intent to make abortion illegal or regulate it to the maximum extent possible if the Supreme Court shows any inclination to chip away at abortion rights.

Another indicator of the direction an individual state may go is the restrictions it has put on abortion already. Many have pressed as far as the courts will let them.

The most far-reaching has been the refusal of 37 states and the federal government to spend their welfare dollars on abortion, except in extreme circumstances. A dozen states also mandate parental notification or consent before a minor may receive an abortion, although courts have required them to allow judges to waive that requirement in individual cases.

While anti-abortion forces have been less effective recently in electing their candidates to Congress, there is some evidence that their strength has been building on the state level.

For most of the years since Roe vs. Wade, abortion foes made no headway with the ballot initiatives that they advanced. In 1984, their persistence paid off for the first time, when they narrowly won a Colorado referendum banning state-funded abortions for the poor. The symbolism of the vote was important, because Colorado had been the first state in the nation to liberalize its abortion laws back in 1967.

Last November, they scored three additional victories: Colorado reaffirmed its stand against Medicaid funding for abortion, while Arkansas and Michigan followed suit. The Arkansas referendum also included language declaring it state policy to protect “the life of every unborn child from the moment of conception.”

Predictions Impossible

It is impossible to predict with certainty what any state will do, however, because the political momentum could shift dramatically. Pro-choice activists have just begun marshaling their forces--most visibly, at the gigantic protest march in Washington April 9, where at least 300,000 turned out.

“I feel (April 9) was literally a turning point where the pro-choice majority found its voice,” Michelman says, claiming that her pro-choice coalition is signing up 15,000 new recruits a week. Pro-choice groups also are planning a major advertising campaign to get across the point that any government intervention threatens all abortion rights.

“There is no moderate position. You either have a fundamental right, or you don’t,” Michelman says.

Meanwhile, the other side is beginning to smell victory after years of frustration, and is not about to give any ground.

Ken Dupre, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, says his group is working furiously “to educate our folks now that, whatever the court’s decision, we are left with battles in the states that must be fought. We are making sure that people know and understand that this issue comes back to the states.”

Legislators are keenly aware of the single-mindedness of those who oppose abortion. “We will go to the polls for this one issue,” McMillan says. “That’s where our strength comes from.”

Quieter Search Continues

Even as the clouds gather for a roaring political storm, a quieter moral search continues among scientists, philosophers and theologians, who are no closer than they have ever been to settling the basic question of when human life begins. Nor can they agree on how to balance the interests of the fetus against those of the full-grown woman who carries it.

The experience of 16 years and 25 million legal abortions has done little to resolve the questions that abortion poses. If anything, it has become an even thornier subject than it was when the Supreme Court handed down Roe vs. Wade.

As more and more women have sought abortion, their individual stories have raised issues never considered before. What, for example, are the rights of the father in determining the fate of a fetus? Who makes the abortion decision when a woman has been physically or mentally incapacitated? Should fetal tissue be used for medical research?

And which is the greater evil: abortion, or bringing a child into a world where only suffering awaits him?

To many women, it seems unfair for the government to be allowed to make that choice without shouldering the responsibility it carries.

During last month’s protests by the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, one abortion foe yelled at a group of pro-choice picketers: “In hell, you’re going to lift up your eyes. You’re going to hear all these babies cry.”

A woman named Rosa, who admitted she had recently had an abortion, shouted back: “I’m a poor black woman with two children. Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, and give me some money for my children?”

Rockne, the Minnesota lobbyist, says that many legislators have not considered the consequences of an outright ban on abortion. “Wait until they see what their welfare budgets are going to look like,” she says.

She and other pro-choice activists also insist that outlawing abortion will not stop it. History proves that.

Rich women will find a way to obtain it outside their home states, says Merle Hoffman of the New York Pro-Choice Coalition. “Black and poor and Hispanic women will find that the kitchen tables are their new health care system.”

Many argue that government must turn its attention to the forces that bring pregnant women to abortion clinics in the first place. They press for reducing poverty, improving sex education and reforming adoption policy.

The most basic reason that the United States has a higher abortion rate than other industrialized countries is the fact that contraceptive use is lower here, according to a study of 20 Western nations by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that does research, policy analysis and public education on reproductive issues.

The institute reported that other countries routinely make contraceptives available at convenient and familiar locations, and at low or no cost. Women in the United States generally must go to medical specialists.

More Methods Available

The range of available contraceptive methods is also greater in other countries, the institute reported. Not yet available here are such means as steroidal implants, injectable steroids and more easily reversible tubal sterilization.

Nor is it likely that any new methods will come on the market soon. Most U.S. companies have been scared out of the business by huge liability judgments. “Basically, only Johnson & Johnson is doing serious research,” said Carl Habermaf, a securities analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

No contraception is foolproof, however, so society will never be able to completely escape its abortion dilemma.

Americans have long felt that abortion, although abhorrent, is basically a private matter. That feeling came through once again in a Times poll last month, when 74% agreed with the statement, “I personally feel that abortion is morally wrong, but I also feel that whether or not to have an abortion is a decision that has to be made by every woman for herself.”

But in the same survey, only 41% said they would make legal abortion available in cases where women believe they cannot afford more children. That would eliminate one of the justifications cited for more than two-thirds of all abortions.

A majority expressed the opinion that abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest, likelihood of fetal defect or a threat to the mother’s health. Those circumstances account for a small fraction of the 1.5 million abortions performed in this country each year, according to a 1987 study by the Guttmacher Institute.

Abortion Rate Doubles

Certainly, it is contradictory to assert that abortion is a private matter, then to advocate that the government deny it to most of the people who seek it. What this may reflect is a general feeling that abortion is a necessary option, but that it is too often becoming a means of birth control or a matter of mere convenience. The annual legal abortion rate today is more than double the number performed in 1973, the first year that it was legal in every state.

The nation’s churches, long the moral voices in the debate, are themselves reassessing their views in light of the role abortion has come to play in America.

Catholics, originally almost alone in their strong opposition to Roe vs. Wade, appear increasingly divided over how high abortion should rank on their agenda.

Some bishops are recruiting their flocks for the all-out war being waged by Operation Rescue, which physically blockades abortion clinics to try to shut them down. Others are trying to diffuse the church’s emphasis on abortion by making it part of a “consistent life ethic” that also weighs such issues as the death penalty and nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, some of the mainstream Protestant churches that helped lead the fight to end illegal abortion are shifting subtly in the other direction.

Last July, the Episcopal Church general convention approved a statement declaring that life is “sacred from its inception until death” and warning that abortion “should be used only in extreme situations.”

“By and large, we’ve really been struggling with this,” says Marcia Newcombe, Episcopal officer for social welfare. “It’s a struggle to keep the pro-choice stance in the forefront, (but) there is that sense that people are becoming a little too free in their relying on abortion.”

Staff writer Noel Wilson contributed to this story.

WHY WOMEN HAVE ABORTIONS The following figures are based on a 1987 survey of 1,900 abortion patients by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit corporation for research, policy analysis and public education in the reproductive health field. Each woman was allowed to cite more than one reason:

In percent

Concern about how having a baby could change her life: 76

Can’t afford baby now: 68

Problems with relationship or desire to avoid single parenthood: 51

Not ready for responsibility: 31

Doesn’t want others to know she has had sex or is pregnant: 31

Not mature enough, or is too young to have a child: 30

Has all the children she wanted, or has all grown-up children: 26

Husband or partner wants woman to have abortion: 23

Fetus has possible health problem: 13

Woman has health problem: 7

Woman’s parents want her to have abortion: 7

Woman was victim of rape or incest: 1

Other: 6