At one point in his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention last month, Vice President Gore worked himself up into a rhetorical outcry: The last thing this country needs is a Supreme Court that overturns Roe v. Wade. That was actually a scare tactic. On June 28 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Nebraska state law banning partial-birth abortions. The statute was said to be so broadly worded that it placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion.
The vote, however, was 5 to 4, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who sided with the majority, indicated that she might have found constitutional a law more precisely written. That prompted the drafters of the Democratic Party platform to declare that eliminating a woman’s right to choose is only one justice away.
When Mr. Gore was interviewed on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on March 18, he pointed out that the next president will probably be appointing at least three new justices to the Supreme Court. If he were to be that president, he said, he would nominate only those who would in no way weaken a woman’s right to choose. With the air of one who is scandalized, he noted that Governor Bush’s favorite among the present members of the court is Justice Antonin Scalia. That preference, he added, is the governor’s code way of saying that he would appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Mr. Bush is indeed pro-life, but he has also said that the country is not ready for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Moreover, in the wholly unlikely event that the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, that decision would not come close to ending the national debate about abortion. It would only return the debate to the 50 states.
All the same, the Democratic platform was accurate enough in calling abortion a major issue in this year’s elections. That does not make it a reason for single-issue voting. It will not be useful to discuss candidates in strictly black and white terms as either pro-choice or pro-life. The questions facing the electorate are too many and too complicated for that. For instance, a pro-life candidate might also be an unyielding defender of the death penalty and an advocate of harsh welfare reforms that brutalize poor children.
It is entirely fair, however, to ask all candidates for federal or state offices to say where they stand on three particular issues that are currently specifying the general question of abortion.
Of these three, partial-birth abortion is the most highly publicized. The majority of the American people oppose this procedure, and it has been banned by 30 states. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, struck down Nebraska’s ban a year ago, a few weeks later the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, upheld very similar laws in Illinois and Wisconsin. It is reasonable to think that both Congress and the state legislatures could draft prohibitions of partial-birth abortion that would withstand legal challenges, and it would be reasonable to call upon the next president to sign such a measure.
Twenty states, including New Jersey in 1999, have passed laws requiring women under 18 to obtain some type of parental consent before having an abortion. Last month the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down the New Jersey law on the grounds that it deprived minors of equal protection under the state’s constitution. In the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law placing certain mild restrictions on abortion. The task now is to determine what restrictions can be defended in light of Casey.
The third issue is underlined by the Democratic Party platform’s assertion that every woman has a right to choose an abortion regardless of her ability to pay. This amounts to a claim that government should not only allow abortions but also promote them by funding the procedure in certain cases. That would be a further descent into darkness under the pretense of compassion.
Confronted with this proposal, the defenders of the rights of the unborn should ask themselves what they really want. Is it just to make abortion illegal again, or is it to reduce significantly the number of abortions? If it is the latter, then now and for the foreseeable future the pro-life movement must work to provide alternatives for women who might otherwise be driven to abortion by poverty and despair.
In any case, the sanctity of unborn life must be kept before the nation. Who knows what changes of heart may be brought about? When Al Gore was in the House he often voted for pro-life measures. He now says he has rethought his earlier positions. If he becomes the 43rd president, free of political calculations, he may be inspired to rethink the abortion question once again.