From ............. Daily News Miner

January 21, 1997

page A4


States, courts also may restrict women's choice

"Picture a world where mothers have easy access to childcare they can afford. Where children can count on a good education no matter what school district they live in. Where people have health care whether or not they have jobs. Where safe birth control is available to everyone who needs it. In this world, abortion isn't illegal. It's unheard of. Isn't that the best choice of all ?" - Catholics For A Free Choice, 1992 poster

On Jan. 22 we commemorate the 24th anniversary of the historic Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion for all American women. Before this legalization, desperate women who needed abortions risked their lives, facing a frightening gauntlet of illegal options, and possible criminal penalties (if they survived their back-alley ordeals).

Today, more than two decades later, the memory of those devastating times is fading fast. Women have come to trust that their reproductive health care will be performed safely, privately, and affordably. Sex education, and increased availability and effectiveness of contraceptives are gradually reducing the number of abortions being performed. Improved abortion techniques have made early abortion one of the safest of all surgical procedures (over 11 times safer than childbirth).

Most Americans take the availability of safe abortion for granted, yet misunderstandings have sprung up about the actual scope of Roe vs. Wade. Disinformation abounds - from the myth of the "full nine months' abortion-on-demand" to that of the "elective partial birth abortion.'' With so much confusion, it's worth reviewing the main points of Roe vs. Wade.

In 1973 the Supreme Court declared that the "right to privacy....founded in the 14th Amendment's concept of personal liberty .... is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion nationwide, stating that (1) the decision to have an abortion during the first trimester (12 weeks) should be left entirely to a woman and her physician, (2) during the second trimester, states could regulate the abortion procedure for only one purpose - to protect the woman's health, (3) after fetal viability, states could prohibit abortion, except when it was necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman.

For now, abortion is still protected by the Constitution. But, for how long? The Supreme Court currently has an antiabortion majority. Since 1973, a series of Supreme Court decisions have eroded that protection by allowing states to legislate restrictions on abortion. At the urging of abortion opponents, most states have legislated obstacles to abortion, often under the guise of protecting women from themselves. Restrictions such as parental consent/notification laws; denial of state funding; criminalization with penalties; fetal rights laws; waiting periods and prohibitions against the use of public facilities and federal funds for abortion services, counseling or referrals, combine with fear of clinic violence and a diminishing number of providers to make abortion more difficult and less accessible for women across the country.

Since 1973, anti-choice forces have been at work undermining abortion rights. In 1996, this meant falsely depicting a rare and lifesaving abortion procedure for women facing crises late in pregnancy as a gruesome so-called "partial-birth abortion" used to kill babies for trivial reasons like gender selection or minor birth defects. This misrepresentation of the Intact D&E (dilation and extraction) procedure, complete with color posters, make it all the way through Congress, despite the testimony of one of the very few physicians who provide late abortions, Dr. Hern, who stated, "I know of no physician who will provide an abortion in the seventh, eighth, or ninth month, by any method, for any reason except when there is risk to the woman's life or health, or a severe fetal anomaly." The criminalization of this abortion procedure (with no exceptions for the life and health of the mother) was narrowly averted by a presidential veto, but we can expect some form of this argument to appear in Congress again in the coming year. Will we permit politicians to decide which procedures are allowed to save a woman's life?

This attack on a rare procedure is part of a calculated strategy by anti-choice legislators who are "introducing legislation that is less likely to provoke strong pro-choice opposition because they target women with the least political power: young women, low-income women, women of color, and small groups, such as very ill women who discover they must have abortions later in their pregnancies. Some of our usual allies in Congress are willing to sacrifice these women because it allows them to claim they are in the 'middle ground.' " (Janet Benshoof, Center for Reproductive Law & Policy.)

Pro-choice Americans have been slow to rally against this less obvious threat, but women's lives and health - and the rights we all share - are at stake. We cannot afford to remain apathetic much longer. Women are again being forced to take dangerous risks to get reproductive health care. Some highly organized political forces - the Christian Coalition among them - believe that sexually active women deserve whatever they get (pregnancy being an appropriate "punishment"). All of us who believe that safe abortions contribute to the preservation of human life must be active in the political battle for access to safe and legal abortion. Our goal is reproductive freedom for all women .... and an enlightened society in which abortion can truly be "safe, legal and rare."

I urge everyone to learn about the history of reproductive rights. You can contact groups such as ours (FCFC), and watch KUAC-TV (Alaska One Channel 9) on Wednesday, Jan. 22, for the airing of the documentary, "The Roots of Roe."

Lisa Penalver is president of the Fairbanks Coalition For Choice .