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A matter of extremes
By Cathy Young | January 27, 2003
ON THE 30TH anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the United States, political rhetoric on abortion remains as polarizing as ever on both sides of the divide - even though both sides acknowledge that much of the public is somewhere in the middle.
On one side are the right-to-life activists for whom abortion is fully equivalent to the murder of a human being. If one holds that belief seriously, compromise is impossible, and endorsing violent tactics seems to be a logical conclusion: If over a million innocent children in America are being murdered in cold blood every year, using violence to stop such an atrocity isn't all that extreme.
Hardcore prolifers such as Judie Brown of the American Life League regard frozen embryos as ''babies'' and denounce not only abortion but contraception, since, in their view, accepting the belief that people can decide whether and when to have children leads directly to acceptance of abortion.
On the prochoice side, there are those who refuse to recognize that the abortion issue is fraught with any moral ambivalence. A few years ago, the writer Naomi Wolf came under fire from some of her fellow feminists because she wrote that abortion does represent the taking a life - and that, while it is sometimes necessary, women and men have a moral obligation to do everything they can to avoid the need for abortion. Wolf's detractors questioned her feminism and accused her of selling out to the power structure and trying to stigmatize abortion.
More recently, the organization formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League has been criticized by some activists for changing its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America and thus running from the word ''abortion.'' One of the critics, Peggy Loonan, founder of a group called Life and Liberty for Women, saw this name change as emblematic of the prochoice movement's spineless stance - its failure to mount an assertive defense of abortion and its willingness to work with groups and politicians insufficiently committed to abortion rights.
This compromise strategy, Loonan asserted in a recent op-ed column in The New York Times, has allowed laws and regulations restricting access to abortion - for instance, barring public funding or mandating waiting periods and parental consent - to proliferate on the state and federal level.
There is, however, one problem with this line of reasoning. While abortion rights supporters are right to say that there is a broad prochoice consensus in America, the vast majority of Americans also endorse the restrictions Loonan deplores.
Thus, in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll earlier this month, two-thirds agreed that abortion should be legal at least in the first trimester of pregnancy. At the same time, 88 percent of those surveyed supported laws requiring doctors to inform women of alternatives to abortion, 78 percent favored a 24-hour waiting period, and 73 percent backed parental notification for minors seeking abortions.
Even spousal notification, rejected by the Supreme Court as placing an undue burden on women, was favored by 72 percent of the public. A ban on the late-term procedure known as partial-birth abortion was supported by 70 percent. Other polls have found that about three-quarters of Americans oppose taxpayer funding for abortions. Public opinion on these issues has remained relatively steady over the past 30 years.
True, many of the laws prochoice activists deplore impose disproportionate hardships on low-income women. (That includes 24-hour waiting periods, since women often have to travel a long distance to the clinic, skip a day of work, and stay somewhere overnight.) But the answer to this dilemma lies in private charity. If the prochoice movement has enough resources to battle such regulations in court and at the ballot box, surely it has enough resources to organize a private network of assistance for poor women.
Most Americans who consider themselves prochoice are uncomfortable with abortion. They would like to see the number of abortions reduced, and they are rightly disturbed when they see abortion being treated too lightly or casually. The slogan ''Abortion on demand and without apology,'' bandied about by some feminists about a decade ago, is unlikely to find much sympathy.
Of course, the problem with the prolife activists make no secret of the fact that for them, every restriction on abortion is merely a battle won in the great war to outlaw abortion altogether. If they ever come close to achieving that goal, public opinion will be quick to turn against them. But in the meantime, an absolutist stance on abortion rights is not a winning tactic for the prochoice movement.