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Published: 1/27/2006

Roe: A shift in perspective on the abortion debate

EVER since the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade in 1973, generations of Americans have grown up never knowing anything but legalized abortion on demand. The daughters and granddaughters of women who vehemently opposed or supported the high court's decision are undoubtedly aware of the everlasting controversy over the high court's action.

But I suspect few are as passionately committed to the cause as their elders were or are; even fewer among generations X, Y, and Z truly believe abortion will be banned again in this country.

While the driving forces behind opponents and supporters of abortion rights ratchet up their rhetoric in anticipation of or trepidation over the changing makeup of the Supreme Court, a shift in generational thinking on abortion is often overlooked. Unlike the sisterhood amassing to applaud the Alito addition to the bench or decry the ominous development, a middle ground is emerging with those who were raised with Roe as settled law and share neither sentiment.

There appears to be less stridency and more measured relativity among many young Americans who are not completely for or against upholding the Roe ruling. During their lifetimes they have been exposed to technical advancements like three-dimensional sonograms of fetuses and have seen amazing medical progress in treating fetuses in utero or infants born weeks prematurely.

But many of those born post-Roe have also come to expect abortion as a fallback option to unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. It is a last resort, to be sure, but one that a consistent majority of Americans say they still want to have available.

Still, 33 years after Roe there has been a softening of that ultimatum to the degree that some restrictions on abortion have gained mainstream acceptance. The hardliners in the pro-choice movement abhor any relaxation of abortion jurisprudence as the beginning of a slippery slope to end legalized abortion as we know it.

The hardliners in the pro-life camp see it the same way but with wishful thinking that any court-upheld curbs on abortion will be precursors to outlawing the procedure altogether. Both sides are consumed with how the judicial transformation of the Supreme Court will affect the battles looming before it over challenged abortion laws.

Chief among those involves partial birth abortion, where the shifting consensus of the country favoring some limits or a ban on the procedure could be reflected by a more conservative-leaning court. Other debates sure to be revisited include abortion notification requirements, mandatory waiting periods, and further defining "undue burden" for women seeking abortions.

But while the legal pendulum appears to have swung in favor of abortion opponents on the Supreme Court with the addition of conservative appointments and the promise of more to come, all is not doomed with the Roe precedent.

Turning the country in a more conservative direction on the application of the landmark ruling does not mean abolishment of the constitutional right to privacy repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court. It could be that a reshuffled bench will be strictly committed to refining Roe, not reversing it, and sending unresolved exceptions back to the states to settle.

Ultimately, nothing less than turning back the clock will satisfy some ardent anti-abortionists and nothing less than unrestricted reproductive rights will satisfy some ardent abortion supporters. But it may surprise both sides that while they are busy fighting for unilateral victories, a generational and nationwide shift on the legal and moral acceptability of abortion has occurred.

There are strong reservations about abortion on demand for any reason at any time for anyone that have tempered fervor for right-to-choose at any cost. Likewise, enduring objections to returning to the pre-Roe days of illegal abortions and a patchwork of state laws have tempered support for right to life without exception.

Many who have lived their entire lives with abortion as the legal law of the land, as well as those who lived through the Roe flash-point in history, watch the annual protests and rallies that mark the anniversary of the ruling with almost a sad detachment.

Every cold January the veteran combatants fighting for all or nothing seem unable or unwilling to entertain fresh perspectives on the problem from the vast middle.

The elders in the opposing movements obsessed with Supreme Court composition are missing an opportunity to learn from the young.



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