Current Opinion: Abortion Legislation

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Current Opinion: Abortion Legislation

by Rita Arditi

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1977, p. 19

On June 20, 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision (6 to 3) that it is within the power of states to deny welfare funds for elective abortions. Immediately, in Connecticut, Governor Ella Grasso declared that unless an abortion is medically necessary the state will not pay for it. In Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota pro-life forces began pushing for laws that will eliminate public funding for elective abortions and in Massachusetts two laws are pending before the legislature to prohibit the Dept. of PubliC Welfare from paying for abortions. 

Only three judges dissented from the ruling: Harry Blackmun, author of the 1973 rulings on abortion, William J. Brennan, Jr., well known for his egalitarian views and Thurgood Marshall, the only black member in the court’s history. Marshall argued that:” … the opponents of abortion have attempted every imaginable means to circumvent the commands of the constitution and impose their moral choices upon the rest of society. The present cases involve the most vicious attacks yet devised. The impact of the regulations here falls tragically upon those among us least able to help or defend themselves – as the court well knows, these regulations inevitably will have the practical effect of preventing nearly all poor women from obtaining safe and legal abortions … ” 

Contraception backed up by abortion has been the means by which most women have regulated their fertility. Since the legalization of abortion in 1973, hospital admissions for abortion-related complications declined between 50% and 80% across the country. In 1973, the first year that abortions became legal, there was a 40% drop in maternal mortality from abortion. Also, in New York, where many poor women have had access to legal abortion there has been a decline in infant mortality, due to the fact that women have been able to postpone their pregnancies until their situation made it easier on them to have children. 

The Supreme Court decision has scary overtones. According to the majority opinion it is acceptable for states “to make value judgements favoring childbirth over abortion and to implement that finding by the allocation of public funds.” Also that a state’s “legitimate demographic concerns could constitute a substantial reason for departure from a position of neutrality between abortion and childbirth.” In other words, according to states’ economic and political interests it will be OK to use public funds to manipulate population through the control of women’s bodies. 

Poor women, black and white will now have to pay for their abortions. This will mean in the vast majority of cases an end to safe and legal abortions. This decision will have the effect of coercing poor women to bear children or to resort to “coat-hanger” abortions. It will also force many women to abandon safer ways of contraception like diaphragms or condoms and to get back to birth control pills which have proven to be more dangerous but also more effective. This is a real threat to the health of fertile women. 

Justice Powell, Jr., writing for the majority, asserted that the measure does not “impinge upon the fundamental rights” to an abortion. But the constitutional guarantee bf equal protection under the law is made a mockery of if a woman who uses Medicaid for her health needs has an abortion excluded from the services available to her. If states can pay for pregnancy and childbirth, and not for abortions, who is defining what is “medically necessary”? Obviously the all-male court has now singled out poor women but the right of all women to control our wombs is under attack. What the Court is saying is that we women have to pay for our rights, we cannot have them “for free.” 

At the national level nine out of the necessary 34 states have approved resolutions asking Congress to call a constitutional convention in order to amend the constitution to prohibit abortion. The states are: Rhode Island, Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, South Dakota, Utah and Massachusetts. In order to prevent this, Congress may act quickly on one of the 40 versions of an amendment already introduced to overturn the original 1973 Supreme Court ruling. 

There is a logic in all this. The Court has not recognized abortion as a fundamental right for women. We are heading right back to where we were 4 years ago. The simple truth is that what should be ours by right is being sold to us.

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