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Revisionist History: Choice Not Chance


This is as good a time as any to visit an idea – a bad idea – that’s been kicking around in Liberal circles about abortion and Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made surgery to end a pregnancy safe and legal.
Just after the New Year, the U.S. Senate will begin considering Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. And Alito is no pro-choice advocate. But in many other respects he may well be qualified to become a member of the court. Which has Liberals in a bit of a twist. If they vote Alito down on abortion alone, they look like hacks. If they don’t, they look like patsy.
So there’s a little bit of rose-colored revisionism going on in Democratic circles. The chat – Roxanne Cooper pointed to a good example here on her site – got a full public airing in last week’s New Yorker when the magazine’s legal affairs reporter, Jeffrey Toobin, revisited the “state’s would have done it, anyway” canard in this conversation.
The piece certainly covers the waterfront. It starts by making the Dredd Scott comparison – one loved by conservatives who believe that misguided court ruling equates to Roe – and ends with the observation that Roe has withstood a variety of challenges. In the meantime, Toobin spends some time lingering on the idea that if Roe hadn’t gone before the Supreme Court, the political bloodbath that passes for debate on this issue might have been avoided.
Instead, say those who endorse this point of view, we might have ended up with what we have today: A series of state laws that sort of contradict on another but, for the most part, allow abortions to take place for most women. The argument is that state legislatures were going in this direction anyway – New York and California had enacted legislation before Roe – so the Supreme Court decision wasn’t as vital to abortion rights as supporters (and NARAL fundraisers) would like us to believe.
Now, I’m not fan of the pro-choice movement’s hysteria. And it’s unwillingness to confront the backwater and eddies in this conversation. Those girls have gone to DEFCON 4 over small stuff and – as Toobin points out – Roe stands. But we’re not talking about “most” women when we talk about abortion; we’re often talking about poor women, abused women and girls. Or the simply desparate. In others words, those who need help the most at a time when it can be the hardest to come by.
Which is why the idea that state legislatures in the early 1970s would have passed legislation allowing women to end their pregnancies is laughable. It may well be great legal or even political theory. But it’s not realistic.
First of all, most state legislatures in 1973 were made up of men. White men. White men who, between the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the social turmoil of the 1960s, were feeling pretty disoriented. Remember Phyllis Schlafly? Sure you do. She’s the woman – who in this same point in time – was warning of the dangers of enacting the Equal Rights Amendment, preying on that disorientation and fear. My God! What’s next?
Schlafly’s scare tactics seem quaint these days: Warning of co-ed restrooms! (Just like my local Starbucks) Women in combat! Just like this Sunday New York Times story details. This is the sort of talk that kept state legislatures from enacting an amendment to the constitution that would have, well, it would have offered a few much-needed protections, among them the right to get paid fairly, that might have made women’s lives a little bit easier.
Nothing like the right to end a pregnancy. And yeah, of course, Roe contributed to the popularity of Schlafly’s cause. But that’s the point. She played on fear. And she got away with it. That’s the consequence we’re living with today.
So take off those rose-colored glasses. The fight to give women legal parity has never been easy and it’s silly for anyone – male or female – to pretend otherwise.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 12:13 PM | Permalink

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