Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Shot Heard Round the World

It might hardly be that dramatic. But make no mistake, the South Dakota legislature intended it be the line drawn in sand to challenge Roe v. Wade. The only question, now, is whether the governor, Mike Rounds, an anti-abortion Republican, will sign it into law next week.

This is no longer attempting to ban abortion by small increments such as parental consent laws, bans on partial birth abortion, or local ordinances that make it difficult to operate an abortion clinic. All those tried and true firebreaks that obstruct a woman’s access to a medically safe abortion, especially in rural areas, without outright banning the procedure are gone.

At least all those obstructions had the benefit of enjoying some public support because they tapped into America’s deep ambivalence over abortion. While polls have remained remarkably consistent for years, showing that the American public supports a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, especially in cases of rape, incest, and to protect the mother’s health, support for abortion rights drops off when it’s either a late trimester abortion or when the woman seeking it is a minor.

People are uneasy about granting the same right to make a major medical decision to a minor that they give to an adult woman. And they support parental involvement or, at least, the intervention of a judge or other responsible adult in the decision-making process when it involves an underage girl.

The public is equally uncomfortable with the procedure misnamed partial birth abortion. Indeed, the very description of the procedure is grisly in its details. The anti-abortion right has gained much traction in their fight simply by presenting this procedure as more commonplace than it actually is. In truth, it is dangerous enough that it is performed in only one to five percent of women seeking abortions and usually only when the mother’s health is truly endangered or the fetus has little hope of being born normal. And we are talking here of severe birth defects.

The public’s ambivalence, however, fades rapidly when the issue is the right of a woman of legal age to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, when the vast majority of abortions are performed. Opposition to abortion also drops rapidly for victims of rape, incest, or where the fetus is damaged and is unlikely to be born normal or to live at all.

And all of these abortions would be illegal under South Dakota’s new law. This is the harshest legislation on the books since the sixties when abortions first began to be legalized by state legislatures and courts. The only exception to the South Dakota law would be save the life of the mother. That’s it.

Not even to protect her health. And it would make the performance of an abortion a criminal offense for the doctor, who, if charged, could go to jail for up to five years.

This law is a throwback to the days of the double standard for women and could well result in a return to back alley abortions complete with rusty coat hangers, desperation and death for young women “in trouble.”

Of course, the law is also a deliberate challenge to Roe v. Wade brought on by the new make up of the Roberts-Alito Supreme Court. If, indeed, this court challenge succeeds, other states across the South and Midwest will soon follow suit. And while this might not exactly be the shot heard round the world, it will draw enough blood to dramatically alter the landscape of young women’s lives across America.

At the very least, it will wake up a lot of women, and even their male friends, from the complacency that let them think that Roe v. Wade was inviolable. They have long ignored the threat from the social conservatives because, quite simply, they thought their right to choice was safe. It was “settled law.”

Of course, Republican moderates in the senate should have known better. Should the Supreme Court, indeed, uphold the constitutionality of South Dakota’s new law, the blood of every victim of an illegal, back alley abortion will be on the hands of Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and all those other moderates who led their states’ voters to believe that they were pro-choice and then sold them out for thirty pieces of GOP party discipline.

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