The American way of life
As the supreme court prepares to endorse new restrictions on abortion,
Ann Bradley looks at the issue of the unborn in the USA
In 1980, Ronald Reagan made a presidential pledge that he would appoint
to the US supreme court justices who would 'respect the right to all life
in their decisions' - in other words anti-abortionists. Twelve years later
America is suffering the consequences. The supreme court is now packed with
self-confessed reactionaries who claim to respect the life of the unborn
child, and oppose women's right to abortion. Out of nine justices only two,
John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun, have a record of supporting liberal
Women's rights campaigners are worried that the supreme court is determined
to over rule the constitutional right of a woman to abortion in the early
months of her pregnancy. And they fear that the impending judgement on Pennsylvanian
law may provide it with the chance it has been waiting for.
Please Mom, may I have...?
In July, the supreme court will deliver the verdict on a battle between
Planned Parenthood of South East Pennsylvania and governor Robert Casey.
Nobody doubts that the ruling will effect current interpretations of abortion
law throughout the USA, and nobody seriously doubts that the result will
be to impose some further restrictions on access to abortion. The question
is, how extreme will the change be?
The new law backed by governor Casey does not seek to ban abortion outright,
but it does make it far harder for a woman to get one. The law insists on
a mandatory waiting period before the operation is performed, and demands
that the doctor instruct his pregnant patient on the stage of development
of her fetus. Unmarried teenage girls will be unable to get an abortion
without the consent of at least one parent or a judge. A married woman must
provide her doctor with a sworn statement that her husband has been informed
of her decision to abort 'his' child.
It is obvious that this Pennsylvania state law contradicts the supreme court
decision of 1973, on which existing federal abortion law is based. In a
case that became known as Roe v Wade, the supreme court ruled that the 'right
to privacy...is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or
not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the state would impose
by denying a woman this choice is apparent'. Too true.
However, the court also ruled that this right to privacy was not absolute
and had to be balanced against the state's 'important interests in safeguarding
health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life'.
It resolved this problem by curtailing a woman's right to abortion as her
pregnancy progressed. For the first three months of the pregnancy her right
to privacy was understood to be paramount, by the final trimester the right
to life of the fetus took precedence.
US abortion law has been celebrated, especially by abortion rights campaigners
in Britain, as a model of good practice. In fact, it is nothing of the kind.
Women may have the right in law to abort an early pregnancy, but rights
mean little if you are unable to exercise them, and the last decade has
brought the systematic dismantling of state-funded abortion services in
Sometimes the rundown of abortion services has been accompanied by legal
challenges. In 1989, a review of the Missouri state law ruled that states
can impose restrictions on abortion as long as they are not 'an undue burden'.
Just what constituted 'an undue burden' the supreme court declined to define,
but it allowed Missouri to restrict the use of public money, medical personnel
and facilities for abortion. More often, cuts in abortion facilities have
passed almost unnoticed. It was not considered an issue for the supreme
court when Reagan insisted that funding designated for Medicaid - the American
version of a public health service - could not be used for abortion purposes.
Aborting 'the underclass'
It is unlikely that the supreme court will do as the 'pro-choice' activists
fear and use the Pennsylvania case to overturn Roe v Wade. It is far more
likely that the Pennsylvania case will be used to shore up the Missouri
decision, allowing states to hinder women from getting abortion on request
while leaving intact some, increasingly limited, abortion provision.
If Roe v Wade is overturned, individual states would have the right to ban
abortion altogether. Despite the pro-life rhetoric of the supreme court,
this is not what the American establishment wants. A constitutional endorsement
of bans on abortion has the potential to whip up considerable public anger
with possible destabilising consequences.
The majority of Americans are opposed to state bans on abortion. In April
in Washington, a million people demonstrated against the Pennsylvania restrictions.
The Democratic Party has picked up on this mood. All of the leading candidates
for the Democrats' presidential nomination claim to be 'pro-choice', and
the party has pledged to go into the election campaign with a commitment
to Row v Wade on its platform. A Republican-dominated supreme court is unlikely
to want to stir up the issue any more than necessary - at least until the
presidential election is over.
Furthermore, even some of those who claim to be pro-life are uncertain about
restricting abortion. Their horror at the rising number of abortions in
the USA is balanced by a concern about the growing number of blacks, Hispanics
and poor whites on welfare - those whom the authorities label 'the underclass'.
The American authorities are turning to population control measures in an
attempt to 'keep down the poor'. In many states welfare benefits are now
linked to contraceptive regimes - you only get your money if you don't get
pregnant. And in this context abortion is seen as a necessary evil.
The supreme court should have no problem balancing such pragmatic political
necessities with its commitment to 'the sanctity of life'. It had no problems
squaring its collective conscience with the endorsement of the recent gassing
of Robert Harris, or the electrocution of Roger Coleman. Paradoxically,
the only two members of the supreme court to oppose those executions were
Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens - the two 'pro-choice' justices.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992