March 7, 2006

We must educate ourselves about the current state of abortion rights

In light of recent legislation prohibiting abortion in certain states, our generation finds itself in a position of having to make up its mind about an issue that many of us have always taken as a given. For the last 33 years, Roe v. Wade (whether we like it or not) has stood as the definitive answer to the abortion question. We may have debated abortion in terms of ethics, law, and personal choice, but we have never had to debate its constitutionality in earnest.

Times have changed, and we are faced with answering the abortion question once again. Just two weeks ago, South Dakota made headlines by passing a law that prohibits all abortions except in the case of saving a pregnant woman’s life. This direct attack on Roe v. Wade is expected to be followed by similar legislation in Mississippi (where it has already passed through the House), Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. More than ever, the abortion debate is in full force.

We need to make up our minds about abortion, just as we expect our Supreme Court Justices to. Like them, we need to make sure that we look at this as a strictly constitutional question. But how can we answer this question constitutionally without first asking ourselves ethically, when does life begin? More pertinent to the legal question is actually when does “personhood” begin? To complicate things further, we need to make sure we do this without treading too heavily on the boundary between church and state. A religious view of the beginning of life cannot hold more sway than a secular one. We also need to decide when we think the point of viability is, for this is central to Roe’s reasoning. At what point do the state’s interests in the life of the fetus become “compelling” enough to supersede the woman’s private decision?

These are not light questions, and out of the hypothetical ring they gather even more weight. We need to wake up and educate ourselves about this. Read Roe v. Wade. For that matter, read the Constitution—or at least the first 14 Amendments. Decide whether you think the right to privacy, the due process clause, and the equal protection clause amount to a woman’s constitutionally protected right to an abortion.

Unfortunately, Roe does little to make this decision any easier. The legal reasoning behind Roe is not supported strongly by any single constitutional clause. It hangs precariously off many modern interpretations of the constitution, making it difficult for feminists like us, who ideally support a woman’s right to choose, to firmly stand behind Roe as a legal decision. Roe itself has been abrogated so many times by later decisions, such as Casey v. Planned Parenthood, that only its central tenent remains—that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion at some early stage of her pregnancy. Yet we must be prepared to act as civilians who support choice if this tenent should fall. Be prepared to influence your state’s decisions on abortion if indeed Roe is overturned.

There are things you can do. First of all, educate yourself seriously about the issue. Make a firm decision, even if you end up changing your mind in 10 years—because abortion is being decided on now. Don’t let it pass you by while you wait in apathy. If you are from a state that is considering a challenge to Roe, contact your congressmen and stop that legislation.