Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ensured a woman’s right to have an abortion, will mark its 40th anniversary Jan. 22.
But the ruling left room for interpretation and alteration, touching off a cultural and political war that is still being fought on a variety of fronts, from Congress to state legislatures to our local counties.
The number of abortions rose for 17 years after the ruling, but it has been dropping ever since. The reasons are numerous, observers say, and include better family planning, wider use of contraception, restrictions imposed in many states, better sex education and moral persuasion.
“Certainly, there’s access to affordable contraception,” said Debra Marcus, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of South Central New York.
“I think there is an improvement in medically accurate sexual education in the schools,” she added. “And the studies are showing that teens are more likely to delay having sex, and when they do, they’re more likely to be using contraception. … There really have been improvements.
“But I also do think that in places like Mississippi, South Dakota, the South, the Southwest, all of these restrictions on abortions mean that there are women who have unintended pregnancies, that they’re really not prepared to be parents. … And they don’t have access to abortion services and therefore there are higher rates of unintended pregnancies.”
The Rev. David Mickiewicz, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oneonta, suggested another reason.
“My impression is that science has helped make an impact in that now, with ultrasound, to a very early age in the womb, we can see visuals,” he said. “Images speak volumes in our particular culture,” he said.
To Mickiewicz, those images help reinforce the belief that life begins at conception.
“The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, other Christian denominations … we believe in life from the womb,” he said.
“From that moment of conception, that is a human being, endowed with a spirit, therefore a soul, therefore is unique. The church is not going to change, the Catholic Church in particular here, is not going to change its teaching.”
But, as the anniversary approaches, he sees room for discussion rather than dogma.
“My question to the church is: Have we and are we persuasive in our argumentation? Because just saying something doesn’t persuade somebody.”
In 2009, the latest year for which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides data, 784,507 abortions were reported. That’s the lowest number since 1974. The crest came in 1990, when 1.4 million abortions were reported — double the 2009 number.
However, states are under no obligation to report abortion data to the CDC, and the 2009 figures exclude California, Maryland, New Hampshire and Delaware. Because of differences in year-to-year reporting by states, some comparisons are difficult.
The CDC says that it has received data continuously since 2000 from 45 of the 48 states and other entities that reported data for 2009. Among those 45, the overall number of abortions and the abortion rate per 1,000 women, ages 15 to 44, declined 5 percent from 2008, and the ratio of abortions to live births declined 2 percent.
The 2009 report lists New York state and New York City separately, but taken together, they had, by far, the most abortions reported to the CDC for a single state: 115,629 (32,723 in the city and 87,273 in the rest of the state). Florida was No. 2 at 81,819, and Texas was No. 3 at 77,630. South Dakota had the fewest abortions at 769.
“I would say a big part of that is … people coming in from other states where they have less access,” Marcus said of the New York figures.
About 8 percent, or 7,051, of the New York state abortions, excluding those in the city, were performed on out-of-state residents, the CDC data show. Kansas was a distant second at 4,717, according to the agency’s figures.
“Access is much less a problem in someplace like New York than, say, Mississippi or Kentucky or some of those states that are having increasing numbers of these restrictions on abortions,” Marcus said.
Marcus cited 24-hour waiting periods and required pre-abortion ultrasounds as examples of restrictions that other states have enacted.
“There are some states that have what are called traps — targeted regulation of abortion providers — saying that hallway doors have to be a certain width, doctors have to have admitting privileges to the local hospital, even though they might not for other types of ambulatory surgeries,” she said.
Mickiewicz acknowledged that a complete ban on abortion might never be achieved.
“My understanding is that whether you’re pro or con on the issue, the vast majority of people in the United States do not think this is a good thing, but they don’t want to say no to it carte blanche,” he said.
“Is abortion or anything like that going to be totally wiped off the face of the Earth?” Mickiewicz asked. “No, it’s not. And we’re not going to persuade everybody. But can it at least be infrequent?”
“There are some people who feel very strongly about it,” he added. “It almost becomes the only issue, but the problem is that no issue stands on its own. … The economy affects this, family life affects this, our values about human beings and life in general affect this. The consumerist idea of our country concerning everything affects this.”
And for Marcus, a reduction in the number of abortions, would, under some circumstances, be a success.
“What we are finding is that unintended pregnancies have gone down in those places where there is adequate family planning, where there is more access to contraception, there’s comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education in the schools,” she said. “Prevention really works.”