By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—May I remind you what else was happening on the very day in 2003 when Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. In Florida, the Legislature passed a law that gave politicians the power to override Terri Schiavo’s wishes and have her feeding tube reinserted.
Up and down the East Coast, under two Bush administrations—George and Jeb—politicians were playing doctor and God and patient, trumping both medical opinion and individual rights.
May I also remind you of the day President Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban into law. The photo op had him surrounded by an all-male chorus line of legislators. These men were proudly governing something they never had: a womb.
What a long and wounding debate this has been. The moment this procedure was dubbed “partial-birth abortion,” pro-lifers won the PR war. They took women out of the picture, literally. The line drawings that illustrated congressional hearings often showed a headless woman bearing a perfect, healthy baby of six months’ or more gestation.
Their words not only described a procedure that was indeed gruesome, they portrayed these invisible women as amoral—women who choose abortion to fit into a prom dress.
When President Clinton vetoed the ban, he surrounded himself with women who had been through pregnancies that came with an awful vocabulary: words such as hydrocephalus and polyhydramnios. Those women and their “prom dates”—obstetricians and gynecologists—asked for only one exception to the ban. They wanted an exception for serious health risks.
Indeed in 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law by 5-4 because it didn’t have such a health exception. The court called it an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to abortion. Nevertheless, in 2003, with the boldness of a party that controlled two branches of government and was making a bid for the third, Congress passed the law directly confronting that ruling.
Now women are again among the “disappeared.” On Wednesday, a new Supreme Court upheld the ban, also by 5-4, proving what a difference the turnover in a justice or two can make.
For many years, Sandra Day O’Connor had kept an uneasy peace in the court and maybe the country. She upheld Roe v. Wade while allowing states to regulate abortion as long as they didn’t place an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to decide.
In many ways, the first justice who had ever been pregnant defined which burdens were “undue.” She said it was an undue burden to ban any procedure without a health exception. She said that if there was any disagreement among doctors about safety, it was to be decided in favor of the woman’s health.
But the new court majority has decided something quite different. In an opinion tortured by an attempt to deny what he was doing—overturning a precedent—Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that since only a small minority of women seeking abortions would be affected and since there was another possible procedure, the ban was constitutional.
Writing for the majority, Kennedy said it was fine for the politicians to make medical decisions, fine to eliminate health exceptions, fine to overturn precedent. He even pretended to leave the door ajar for individual suits by women in the midst of a pregnancy crisis. From where? Her hospital bed, or perhaps her gurney?
Let me remind you of something else. When Samuel Alito was a justice wannabe to replace O’Connor, he reassured lawmakers he’d respect precedent on abortion. When John Roberts talked about his reverence for both precedence and the court, he said he got a “lump in my throat whenever I walked up those marble steps.” That lump in his throat is now a chill up my spine.
As Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights said, “It took just a year for this new court to overturn three decades of established law.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did more than hint at the loss of O’Connor in her blistering opinion for the now-minority. The court, she noted, is “differently composed” now.
The court’s opinion “tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,” Ginsburg wrote. “The court’s defense of it [the ban] cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court.”
How many times must it be said that those who support a woman’s right to decide want abortion to be safe, legal and rare? As of today, women whose pregnancies come with alarming words and dangerous diagnoses live in a world that is a little less legal and a lot less safe.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group