Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Abortion wars

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Abortion wars
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 24 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 24 2007 03:00

Abortion has long been a make-or-break political issue for American voters at either end of the ideological spectrum - but those in the middle seldom cast their vote by their reproductive politics.

Now all that may be about to change. The US Supreme Court's historic abortion ruling last week - banning one rare abortion procedure and inviting many more new laws to restrict reproductive freedom - has energised not just the fanatics on both sides, but the complacent middle too.

Up until last week, most middle-of-the-road voters assumed the constitutional right to abortion was basically safe: it might be trimmed around the edges, but the right to choose was not in jeopardy. Now they cannot be so sure.

On the face of it, last week's ruling was inconsequential: the court upheld, by a 5-4 majority, a federal law banning "partial-birth" abortion, a gruesome but rare procedure that can almost always be replaced by other methods.

But the ruling was both historic - the first time the court had upheld a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure since women won a constitutional right to abortion in 1973 - and symbolic. Its rationale and language marked a profound shift for the court. The new five-man anti-abortion majority was formed by adding two new conservatives appointed by President George W. Bush. That new majority said last week that abortion is bad for women - and that the government has a strong interest in saving them from it.

The paternalistic, patronising language of the ruling - which warns that women may suffer "loss of esteem" and "severe depression", or "regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained" - has enraged many American women, and not just rabid feminists.

Abortion foes had long dreamt of such a ruling, and they had a big part in bringing it about, not least by pressuring Mr Bush to appoint new justices who would cut back on abortion rights. But those who support the right to choose (actively or passively) have also been galvanised. They may be less passionate than those who hate abortion, but they are almost certainly more numerous. Anti-abortionists will no doubt seize on the ruling to introduce all sorts of restrictive legislation at state level. But they will be met by a pro-choice backlash.

Either way, the ruling could end up having a significant impact on the next election - not to mention on the reproductive choices of a whole generation of American women yet to come.


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