President Bush has nominated Judge John G. Roberts Jr., a Catholic, to replace Justice Sandra O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Judge Roberts attended a Catholic high school in Indiana and completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard in 1976, graduating summa cum laude in just three years. He was an honors graduate of Harvard Law School, clerked under Justice Rehnquist, and worked in the Reagan Administration. His nomination is sure to be opposed by progressive groups because of a legal brief he signed in 1991 as Deputy Solicitor General under the elder President Bush. "We continue to believe that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled," said the brief, which argued in favor of a regulation banning abortion-related counseling by federally-funded family planning programs.
The spotlight will certainly be intensely focused on the issue of the legality of abortion in America in general, and the sustainability of Roe v Wade in particular. We believe this is an utter mistake, both for conservatives and for liberals. Those people who have made overturning Roe the litmus test for the morality of one's stance on abortion have vastly overstated the effect this ruling has had on abortion rates in America. Not even accounting for speculative estimates of the number of illegal abortions that occurred prior to 1973, the national abortion rates now (16/1000 women/year in 2001 according to the CDC) are lower than they were prior to Roe v Wade. One study has estimated that there were 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions in the US in 1967 alone; the total legal abortions in 2002 were 1.29 million, with a population that was 40% larger. Overturning Roe is no Holy Grail when it comes to decreasing abortion in America.
Studies on abortions in Mississippi, which has among the most restrictive laws in the country and only a single abortion provider, have shown that the overall number of Mississippi women having abortions has remained unchanged. Such laws appear simply to have resulted in 60% of that state's women seeking abortions out-of-state. With the dramatic increases in non-surgical abortions in recent years (up 173% between 2000 and 2001, according to the CDC), any effort to outlaw abortion will likely result in substantial numbers of these procedures being done illegally with drugs like misoprostol that can be produced for pennies and sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars on the black market. No one disputes how poorly federal and state governments have succeeded in combating the use of illegal drugs in the United States.
In other words overturning Roe v Wade, with an anticipated change in a few state laws making abortions illegal, may have no effect on the number of abortions in America. It would serve primarily to give some social conservatives the satisfaction of knowing that "someone was being punished" for abortion—with substantial costs in maternal deaths, induced birth defects, and penal system dollars expended—without actually doing anything to reduce or stop the practice. There is no theological basis for using the threat of state power to impose a solution to any moral problem. Jesus never advocated using the coercive power of the state to accomplish what each of us must do in our own hearts.
Many Democrats who care both about the wellbeing of women and of their babies have been suckered into believing that Republican leaders are really opposed to abortion. A recent Guttmacher report begins, "With an Administration deeply opposed to abortion…" (http://www.alanguttmacher.org/pubs/ib_5-03.pdf), indicating an assumption that appears to have no basis in fact. The stated Republican opposition to abortion appears to be strictly tactical and rhetorical. Careful analysis of the four major pieces of legislation passed during the Bush years shows that none has had any measurable effect on abortion rates in the United States. The Administration has done no studies to understand why women choose to end their pregnancies. The data gathered by the CDC are typically almost three years late, poorly funded and incompletely gathered, and routinely released with no press coverage the night before the Thanksgiving holiday. This Administration fears that people will recognize what a straw man their expressed opposition to abortion really is. If anything, the evidence suggests that the Republican leadership is addicted to the dollars and political polarity that the abortion debate brings, and have a vested interest in never seeking any real solutions to the problem.
The rapid declines in abortion incidence during President Clinton's Administration were almost certainly a consequence of three factors: changing sexual practices in the era of HIV-transmission, the improved economic status of women, and changing social mores regarding abortion. These declines have substantially slowed under President Bush, according to new data published this summer by the Guttmacher Institute (http://www.alanguttmacher.org/media/nr/2005/05/19/index.html). Furthermore, analysis published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Thanksgiving (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5309a1.htm) have shown an increase in teenage abortions in the US during the first year of the Bush Administration.
Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said at the 2005 Massachusetts Democratic Convention, "I don't know anyone who is pro-abortion." As Catholics, advocating for both children and the parents who bear and raise them, we are working with Chairman Dean to construct a legislative and social program that truly does address the problem of abortion. Perhaps the debate over Judge Roberts' confirmation will help clarify how little the Republicans have done, by focusing exclusively on Roe v Wade, to address the angst that many people of conscience—perhaps especially we Catholics—feel about the continuing high rates of abortion in America. Perhaps it's too much to hope that additionally there will come a new appreciation of how little our society does to support young mothers today.