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The woe of Roe: 46 years later, abortion debate still boils

February 6, 2019
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Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate gathered at the Indiana Statehouse Jan. 22. Sen. Jean Breaux (left) rallied support while opponents (right) called for an end to abortion. (Left photo courtesy of Planned Parenthood Advocates. Right, IL Photo/Eric Learned)

To mark the 46th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, two groups rallied at the Indiana Statehouse Jan. 22, and showed that of the divisions among Americans, the gulf over abortion rights remains among the widest.

Supporters of Roe gathered on the fourth floor of the Capitol to promote abortion rights and advocate for a reproductive rights bill introduced by Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis. Clad in dark blue T-shirts emblazoned with “Hoosiers for Reproductive Freedom,” members of the group listened to women share personal stories and advocate for having access to the medical care they need.

About two hours later, abortion opponents marched to the snow-covered south lawn of the Statehouse. Bundled in heavy coats, boots, scarves and gloves, they held signs decorated with pictures of babies and messages of “Choose Life” and “Loved by God” while lawmakers and members of anti-abortion organizations stood on the steps, invoking religion to call for an end to Roe.

Symone Bailey and Monica Richel, both in their 20s and both students, gave very personal and very differing accounts of how the 46-year-old court ruling impacted their lives. Polite and well-spoken, the two women’s stories highlighted how they arrived at their opposing views, and how they likely will not be able to compromise on this issue.

At the abortion rights rally, Bailey recounted her experience of being in an abusive relationship, raped and becoming pregnant. She turned to Planned Parenthood where, she said, she received comfort and was able to terminate the pregnancy.

Bailey echoed the other women who spoke at the rally in saying the heart of Roe is really about women’s health, privacy and having access to all information about every aspect of their reproductive health.

“If it’s not you and it’s not your body, then you don’t know what’s going on with that person,” Bailey said. “(Women) know, they are in their body, they know what goes on. They need to be able to have full say over what they would like to do with their health choices, and that’s just that.”

Speaking to the gathering of abortion opponents, Richel, a member of Students for Life at Indiana University, talked about her mother, who resisted pressure to abort her because she believed life starts at conception. Every woman who finds herself pregnant, Richel said, should receive support in carrying the baby to term and then in either raising the child or making the choice of adoption.

“I think when we’re talking about human life, there is not middle ground,” Richel said.

Statehouse battleground

Former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse and Yale Law School professor Reva Siegel examine the shifts in the debate over abortion in their chapter, “The Unfinished Story of Roe v. Wade,” which is included in the 2019 book, “Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories.”

Nationally, a majority of the country favors abortion rights. In 1976, three years after Roe was decided, 67 percent agreed with the statement “the right of a woman to have an abortion should be left entirely up to the woman and her doctor.” And in 2018, a Pew Research poll found 58 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in some or all cases.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, state legislatures were expanding access to abortion, but opposition from the Catholic Church created strong headwinds and forced the abortion-rights movement to turn to the courts. When the anti-abortion movement became disappointed by the judiciary, it refocused on statehouses.

Consequently, it was probably no accident that the two January rallies were held at the home of the Indiana Legislature. The abortion-rights group welcomed Breaux, while the anti-abortion gathering heard from several state lawmakers as well as U.S. Sen. Todd Young.

Sue Swayze Liebel, national pro-life women’s caucus coordinator for Susan B. Anthony List, outlined the opposition’s strategy to chip away at Roe. She pointed to the bills that have come through the Indiana General Assembly, including the 2016 measure that required fetal remains to be buried or cremated and prohibited abortions for sex, race or genetic abnormalities.

The federal courts have found that law to be unconstitutional, but the state’s writ of certiorari has been listed on the U.S. Supreme Court’s conference agenda three times since the beginning of January. Liebel described Roe as a house of cards, and state laws, she said, can pull out single cards by challenging or limiting different aspects of legalized abortion until the whole house falls.

Also, she referenced the changes at the highest court, which include new justices joining and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg missing oral arguments after being treated for lung cancer. Liebel cheered the appointments of justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and then told the crowd, “We’re hoping to have at least one more real soon.”

Breaux has witnessed what Liebel described. In her more than decade-long service in the General Assembly, the senator told abortion-rights advocates that her colleagues on the other side of the aisle every year try, in her opinion, to erode women’s rights to reproductive freedom.

Her bill, Senate Bill 589, states every individual has a fundamental right to contraception, pregnancy, adoption or abortion. Breaux championed the measure, which has not received a hearing, as empowering families and building healthy communities.

“(Indiana residents) have the ability to make their own choices regarding their families, when they have them and when it’s best for them to expand them,” Breaux said. “But none of this is possible unless Hoosiers can access reproductive health care when it’s needed and make decisions about their own bodies.”

Who gets to decide?

46years-450-bpShelia Kennedy, professor of law and policy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and former executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, summed up the central question in the abortion debate as, “Who gets to decide?”

Kennedy did not participate in either rally Jan. 22, but she has witnessed the opposition’s growing strength. A supporter of the late politician Barry Goldwater, Kennedy said his conservative philosophy touted individual autonomy over government intrusion. That tension is on display as the opposing sides jostle over who gets to make the decision of whether women carry their pregnancies to term.

At the anti-abortion rally, Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, rejected the argument that abortion is between a woman and her doctor. He sees a third life as being involved and said if the baby could vote, he or she would vote for life.

“If we want God’s firm grip on our nation,” Tomes told the crowd, “then we’ve got to stop the destruction of little lives.”

Alie Brown maintains Planned Parenthood — a prime target of abortion opponents — prevented the loss of her little life. Her story, which she shared at the rally for abortion rights, underscored that the two sides in the debate have a difficult time talking to each other.

Brown became pregnant despite having had an intrauterine device implanted. The physicians listed on her health insurance’s network did not have an open appointment for two weeks, but Planned Parenthood saw her the next day. There, the doctors removed the IUD and, she said, saved her pregnancy. Now she has a healthy baby boy whom she calls the light of her life.

“It’s because of Planned Parenthood that my son is here, and I probably would have lost him, and that’s terrifying to me,” Brown said. “When they attack Planned Parenthood, to me, they’re attacking my son and they say these horrible things about Planned Parenthood, but they won’t listen to stories about how they save lives.”•

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