THE ABORTION DECISION : States Will Be Less Able to Finesse Issue : Reluctant Politicians, Caught in Middle, Fear No-Win Result
In Pennsylvania, elated abortion foes said that Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling has helped their chances of enacting legislation requiring women to notify their husbands before getting an abortion.
Abortion rights activists in Iowa and New Jersey, meanwhile, are hoping that public outrage over the decision will make abortion the central issue in those states’ upcoming gubernatorial elections.
And even as legislators around the nation said that they would push for new limits on abortion almost identical to those in the Missouri statute that the court upheld Monday, victorious abortion opponents in Missouri already had begun studying even tighter restrictions.
For 16 years, state and local politicians have been able to finesse the thorny abortion issue, their votes for anti-abortion legislation rendered meaningless by the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s right to abortion.
Play for Keeps
Now, they must start playing for keeps.
In his dissent, Justice Harry A. Blackmun complained that “a plurality of this court implicitly invites every state legislature to enact more and more restrictive abortion regulations in order to provoke more and more test cases, in the hope that sometime down the line, the court will return the law of procreative freedom to the severe limitations that generally prevailed in this country” before Roe vs. Wade made abortion a legal option for all women.
The high court has sent a clear signal that it is willing to give states wider latitude in regulating abortion, which means that “the days when politicians can remain silent on choice end right now,” said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
“They’re not going to be able to hide,” added Burke Balch, state legislative coordinator of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s largest anti-abortion group.
Only a handful of legislatures were in session as the court handed down its decision. For most states, therefore, the real effects of the court action will not become clear for months.
Few politicians relish the prospect of being caught between opposing sides of what is arguably the most divisive, emotion-laden issue to confront modern American morality. For elected officials trying to keep their jobs, it is almost inevitably “a lose-lose proposition. They would rather not have to look at it,” said Kay Scott, executive director of Planned Parenthood in Atlanta.
Even some of those who publicly declare themselves “pro-life” prefer to avoid taking a stand on anti-abortion measures. “These are the people who will come to me and say privately: ‘Keep that goddamn (legislation) locked up, so I don’t have to vote on it,’ ” said Sen. Alan Spear, a Minneapolis Democrat who chairs the Minnesota Senate’s Judiciary Committee and an abortion rights activist.
In a few states, the political consensus is relatively clear. Louisiana, Utah and Pennsylvania, for example, are expected to restrict abortion as much as the courts will allow. On the other hand, it probably will remain legal in New York, Hawaii and Alaska, no matter how much leeway the states are given.
However, with polls showing the public deeply ambivalent about abortion, most states are expected to become heated battlegrounds for a wide range of proposed new restrictions.
Until now, the anti-abortion forces have been better organized, and more willing to vote for candidates solely on the basis of their stand on the issue. As the result of their efforts thus far, 13 states already have laws on their books expressing their intent to outlaw abortion or regulate it to the maximum extent allowed by law if Roe vs. Wade is ever overturned.
Yet to be seen is how well the long-complacent pro-choice side can mobilize, now that the court has left abortion rights vulnerable to erosion.
“Women can no longer count on the court to protect their rights,” Michelman contended. “We have awakened the sleeping giant, and today we begin mobilizing that giant for the battles that lie ahead.” Some of the first targets, she said, will be anti-abortion gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey, Iowa and elsewhere.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of one-issue candidates across the country,” added Texas State Rep. Lena Guerrero, a strong supporter of abortion rights.
Abortion opponents across the nation have indicated that they will make the Missouri law, with its prohibition on using public facilities for abortion, a model for legislation in their own states.
“There will be a spate of legislation that is similar, if not worse, than the Missouri law,” said Michigan State Rep. Maxine Berman, a pro-choice Democrat. “It will make for an absolutely volatile 1990.”
Abortion opponents in Missouri, meanwhile, see the vindication of their law as only the beginning of a steady chipping away at abortion rights. Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft announced Monday that he will appoint a task force within the next week to recommend additional legislation that could be introduced to further restrict abortion in the state.
In other states, abortion foes said that they will seek to reduce the number of abortions by redefining the point of pregnancy where a fetus is considered viable and by forcing more of the procedures to take place in hospitals, rather than in less expensive clinics.
“It’s going to be a time for creativity and for aggressiveness and that’s exactly what we are going to do,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Stephen F. Freind, one of that state’s most vocal abortion foes.
Freind said that he is considering legislation that would require pregnant women to notify their spouses before undergoing an abortion. Courts have rejected such a concept in the past.
“The father of the unborn child at least must be notified that his flesh and blood exists and, in fact, the mother of the unborn child is considering killing the unborn child,” he said.
In many states, anti-abortion activists say that one of their next battles will be over giving parents an absolute veto over a minor’s ability to obtain abortion, an issue that will come before the Supreme Court this fall. Previously, courts have required states to establish an override procedure, in which a minor can get permission for an abortion from a judge without notifying her parents.
“A child cannot be given aspirin at school or a girl cannot have her ears pierced without her parents’ approval, yet she can have an abortion,” said Samuel Lee, legislative chairman of Missouri Right to Life.
Contributing to this story were staff writers Bob Secter, Eric Harrison and Larry Green and researcher Tracy Shryer in Chicago; researcher Lisa Romaine in Denver; staff writer J. Michael Kennedy in Houston; researcher Anna Virtue in Miami; researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta, and researcher Charles Hirshberg in New York.
BATTLE SHIFTS TO STATES Here is an estimate of how the state legislatures and governors line up on restricting abortion: Key to table below *: In favor of keeping abortion legal by a wide margin **: In favor of keeping abortion legal by a narrow margin ***: In favor, by a wide margin, of restricting abortion as much as courts allow +: In favor, by a narrow margin, of restricting abortion as much as courts allow ++: In favor of keeping abortion legal (margin unclear) +++: In favor of restricting abortion (margin unclear) Divided: Closely divided ?: Position not known
Upper Lower State House House Governor Alabama *** *** +++ Alaska * * ++ Arizona Divided Divided ++ Arkansas *** *** ? California Divided Divided +++ Colorado ** ** ++ Connecticut ++ ++ +++ Delaware Divided Divided ++ Florida +++ +++ +++ Georgia *** *** +++ Hawaii * * ? Idaho *** *** ? Illinois *** *** ? Indiana +++ +++ +++ Iowa + ** +++ Kansas Divided Divided ? Kentucky +++ +++ +++ Louisiana *** *** +++ Maine ** ** ++ Maryland Divided Divided ++ Massachusetts ** *** ++ Michigan *** *** ++ Minnesota *** *** +++ Mississippi +++ +++ ? Missouri *** *** +++ Montana *** + +++ Nevada Divided +++ ++ New Hampshire Divided ** +++ New Jersey +++ Divided ++ New Mexico ** ** ? New York Divided * ++ North Carolina ** ** +++ North Dakota Divided *** ? Ohio *** *** ++ Oklahoma *** *** ++ Oregon Divided Divided ++ Pennsylvania *** *** +++ Rhode Island + + +++ South Carolina +++ *** ? South Dakota + ** *** Tennessee *** *** ? Texas *** *** *** Utah *** *** *** Vermont Divided Divided ++ Virginia ** ** ++ Washington ** ** ++ West Virginia *** *** ? Wisconsin Divided *** +++ Wyoming Divided *** +++
State Governor D.C Council * ++ Nebraska *** +++
Key to map above I: Would keep abortion legal
II: Would restrict abortion as much as courts allow
III: Battleground states
Alabama: II Alaska: I Arizona: III Arkansas: II California: III Colorado: I Connecticut: III Delaware: III Florida: III Georgia: II Hawaii: I Idaho: II Illinois: II Indiana: III Iowa: III Kansas: III Kentucky: III Louisiana: II Maine: I Maryland: III Massachusetts: III Michigan: II Minnesota: II Mississippi: III Missouri: II Montana: III Nebraska: II Nevada: III New Hampshire: III New Jersey: III New Mexico: I New York: III North Carolina: I North Dakota: III Ohio: II Oklahoma: II Oregon: III Pennsylvania: II Rhode Island: III South Carolina: III South Dakota: III Tennessee: II Texas: II Utah: II Vermont: III Virginia: I Washington: I West Virginia: II Wisconsin: III Wyoming: III Source: National Abortion Rights Action League