If the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, the right to an abortion might no longer be law of the land. But the ability to obtain one would remain a fact of the land. It might be harder to end a pregnancy in some states, but there would be no returning to the pre-Roe world.
That’s because a lot has changed since the 1973 decision. For all the passionate anti-abortion activism, Americans have been, if anything, moving toward greater acceptance. Support for making abortion illegal in all cases has fallen to 18 percent, down from 22 percent in 1976, according to Gallup polling. The percentage of people who want it legal in all circumstances has risen by 7 points over the period, to 29 percent.
In the middle stand the 50 percent who want it legal under certain circumstances. That is the position of Roe. The ruling held that the right to an abortion lasts only to the point that the fetus could live outside the womb. Back then, viability was placed at about 28 weeks.
Some alleged abortion foes want to make exceptions for cases of rape or incest. This is “pro-life” hypocrisy. The circumstances of the conception in no way change the nature of the fetus.
In deference to “pro-life” groups, some states have tried to ban abortions performed for reasons of sex selection or a genetic disorder, such as Down syndrome. One can share their distaste for favoring one sex over another—and admire parents who choose to raise a child with Down syndrome. But none of this matters. A woman currently has a right to an early abortion, no explanation required. Why is nobody’s business.
What would happen on the ground if Roe were thrown out? Conservative states might put new restrictions on abortion that sound radical but, in many cases, wouldn’t change the situation much. Mississippi’s 15-week limit for abortion, now in the courts, may not be so restrictive as the fact that the state has only one clinic providing it.
The ongoing debate should recognize that since Roe became law, the abortion rate has fallen by half. That’s thanks to improved birth control methods, including morning-after pills, which can prevent a pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex.
Another reality is that nearly a third of abortions outside of hospitals are now being performed noninvasively with pills. Medication abortions require two pills, one supervised by a doctor, another taken in the privacy of one’s home.
Arkansas passed legislation to virtually ban all medication abortions. Even if it gets through the courts, it’s unclear how any state is going to stop people from taking pills. Opioids are illegal, and they’re everywhere.
In states that make abortions hard or impossible to obtain, middle-class women will travel elsewhere to end their pregnancies. The poor will be forced to have children they don’t want or can’t afford. The states will be left with the hard socio-economic consequences.
Many who support a basic right to abortion are unsettled by new medical technology that has enabled doctors to save fetuses at 23 or 24 weeks. Tightening the rules to recognize these developments is in order. Sweden, for example, allows abortion for any reason until 18 weeks into the pregnancy. After that, the request goes to a government agency, which grants it when something has gone wrong with the pregnancy.
There’s no point in arguing with those who want to ban abortion altogether. They are entitled to their views. But the pro-choice majority remains a decided majority. And that’s why whatever happens to Roe—and let’s hope it survives—the right to end a pregnancy isn’t going away.