Sunday, January 22, 2006

Guarding the henhouse

Today is the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade that affirmed a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion in all 50 states (five states had legalized abortion prior to the Roe decision).

It is also the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guard, those sartorially splendid mercenaries responsible for guarding the Holy See (you know, the Pope, the Vatican, all that jazz).

It’s just a funny coincidence (it’s also the 22nd anniversary of the debut of the Mac and the 38th anniversary of the first episode of Laugh In, so, you see, too much can be made of these things. . . but I digress), but brings up an interesting point. At present, there are four Catholic members of the United States Supreme Court (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts); if Samuel Alito is confirmed, there will be five—the first time in US history that the Court will be majority Catholic.

Now, perhaps the biggest deal about this is that it is no big deal. (It was only 45 years ago that President Kennedy was actually asked by a reporter if he would be more loyal to the Pope than to the US.) But, it is troubling because at least four of these potential five Catholic justices have given signs of their hostility to the rights granted women 33 years ago.

This is not necessarily to say that they are opposed to abortion rights because they are Catholic, either—some very liberal justices (William Brennan, for instance) have been Catholics. But the “moral traditionalism” (as some Catholic scholars call it), exemplified by the likes of Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, is believed by court watchers to be the kind of common bond around which “opinion blocks” coalesce. And the opinion that seems to hang so much on the nature of this emerging block is Roe itself.

Whether Alito and Roberts will have the audacity (for lack of a better word) to overturn Roe outright is still in question, but it seems clear that with Alito replacing O’Connor, the fundamental right to abortion, whether or not it is affirmed in word, will be undermined in deed. With Alito confirmed, the Court, as legal scholar Lawrence Tribe testified at the Judiciary Committee hearings, “will cut back, step by step, not just affirming current restrictions on abortion, but limiting access to it until the fundamental underlying right to liberty is a hollow shell.”

While last week’s unanimous decision in Ayotte earned the praise of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, it is, in my opinion, a decision so narrowly drawn (classic O’Connor, by the way) that it does more to provide a roadmap for abortion rights foes than it does to uphold fair access to abortion. The Court might hold that Roe is “settled law” (something, it should be noted, Alito could not even bring himself to say at his confirmation hearings), but it might also allow for so many obstacles that, in many states, it will be all but impossible to choose to medically terminate a pregnancy.

Obstacles to abortion rights already affirmed through years of challenges include severe restrictions on public funding, mandatory waiting periods, parental notification, and graphic presentations designed to dissuade the woman from going through with the abortion. Further, harassment, terrorism (yes, blowing up a clinic or killing a doctor is terrorism), and the overly strict enforcement of various health and medical codes have caused medically licensed abortion facilities and doctors to completely disappear from large parts of the country. In addition, “Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” fake clinics that, in fact, provide only a pregnancy test and intensive anti-abortion propaganda, have been allowed to spring up like mushrooms. There are already over 1,000 documented “crisis centers,” and, in many states, these centers far outnumber real abortion clinics.

While an abortion might remain officially legal, it will effectively be legal only for wealthy, single, adult women who are lucky enough to live in a region of the country that still has doctors and clinics. If you are poor, strapped for time, a minor, or a resident of states like Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, or Mississippi, then it might well seem like the decision of 33 years ago was never handed down.

So, on this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, let us celebrate the great step forward made January 22, 1973, but let us also act to assure that it doesn’t end up seeming as if that day never happened. There are many things that need to be done to guarantee access to safe, legal abortions for any woman that needs one, but since we today focus on a Supreme Court decision, let us focus on the Supreme Court.

It is important to the future of so much we hold dear—abortion rights included—that Samuel Alito not be allowed to assume a seat on the Supreme Court. I have called for action before, and I will repeat myself now:

Call your Senators—both of them—and tell them that you not only oppose the confirmation of Judge Alito, you fully support a filibuster to make sure he never takes a seat on the High Court. You can phone the US Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121—an operator will connect you directly with the Senate office you request.

Sign some petitions. Planned Parenthood has one here. Campus Progress has one here. (You can sign both.)

Stay active. Planned Parenthood has other things you can do to help protect choice here.

And, finally, stay vigilant. Thirty-three years is not enough time to take the rights guaranteed in Roe v. Wade for granted. The Holy See has known who would guard them the last 500 years. And, though 500 years is perhaps a little too far down the road for America to look, let us at least ask, “Who will guard abortion rights for the next 33 years?”


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