On the 38th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Most Americans Still Don't Understand the Court's Decision
January 22, 2011 marks the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Some celebrate it; some protest it. And most still don’t know it.
In November 2007 the Harris polling organization concluded in regard to American public opinion about "Roe" that "56 percent now favors the U.S. Supreme Court decision." But that conclusion was based on a polling question that did not tell the people what the decision said. In fact, the question asked about only part of it, namely, the part legalizing abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.
This is consistent with an analysis once done by Kent State sociology professor Raymond Adamek in which he observed that the incomplete or inaccurate representation of what Roe actually says is the norm rather than the exception in polling questions.
In fact, Roe legalized abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy, allowing the state only to prohibit it in the final three months of pregnancy “if it chooses” and as long as it is not necessary for health.
The companion decision, "Doe vs. Bolton," issued along with Roe, defines health very broadly, including psychological factors and the woman’s age. Hence, as legal journals have recognized for decades, "The Supreme Court's decisions…allowed abortion on demand throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy" (See for example, Paul B. Linton, Enforcement of State Abortion Statutes after Roe: A State-by-State Analysis, University of Detroit Law Review, Vol. 67, Issue 2, Winter 1990).
Is that what your relative or friend means when they say they are “pro-choice?” I doubt it. When someone says he or she supports Roe vs. Wade, does that imply, according to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute in January 2011, support for the 18,150 abortions performed in the United States at 21 or more weeks of pregnancy, or the 64,130 performed each year at 16 or more weeks of pregnancy, all thanks to Roe? Again, I doubt it.
So do the polls. A July 2010 Angus Reid opinion poll found 61 percent of Americans saying that abortion should be illegal either in all or only in certain circumstances. That’s a far cry from Roe vs. Wade. And in fact further polling has found that the more Americans learn the specifics of what Roe said, the less they support it.
As the Guttmacher Institute and numerous other analyses point out, Roe has been weakened by subsequent Supreme Court decisions that have given the states more freedom in regulating abortion and protecting the unborn child. In fact, the partial-birth abortion procedure, one of the specific abortion methods, has been made illegal and the Supreme Court has upheld that law.
Recently, the state of Nebraska banned abortion after 20 weeks because of the child’s capacity to feel pain. This law, which we can expect to see replicated in other states, has not yet been challenged in court.
So, on the 38th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, it is not enough to say that our nation is divided on the issue. Perhaps it is more accurate to say our nation is beginning to awaken to the fact that Roe’s policy – imposed by a Court rather than voted on by the people’s representatives -- has never represented what the majority of Americans think about abortion.
And in that regard, they are not unlike "Roe" herself, whose name is Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff who won the case. I know Norma very well, and in 1998 had the privilege of receiving her into the Catholic Church. She never appeared in Court, and never understood the implications of the debate until long after the decision was issued. She declares that she has so fully repudiated what the Roe vs. Wade decision stands for that she considers herself “Roe No More.” She has called for the reversal of this decision and works to bring an end to abortion.
Maybe the best way to observe this anniversary is to actually read the Roe vs. Wade decision, and understand that we as a people are closer to the "Roe" who rejected it than to the court that imposed it.
Father Frank Pavone is the Priests for Life President and part of the National Pro-Life Religious Council.