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The End for Roe v. Wade?
Published on Sunday, July 7, 2002 in the Toronto Star
The End for Roe v. Wade?
Abortion issue heating up in U.S.
by William Walker
 

WASHINGTON In two nondescript, heavily guarded offices 10 blocks apart in downtown D.C., Kate Michelman and Wanda Franz head bustling national war rooms. They are sworn enemies in a resurgent battle across America over women's reproductive rights, a confrontation orchestrated out of these private enclaves that could soon land back in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Almost three decades after the court affirmed the right of American women to safe therapeutic abortions in the historic Roe v. Wade case, the divisive issue is on the front burner again, with both sides mounting enormous campaigns to influence the November mid-term election.

The issue, about one of the most private decisions women make in their lifetimes, is going public again. With pro-life President George W. Bush in the White House, proponents on both sides say that never before in the 29 years since Roe v. Wade has that ruling been in such peril.

Both sides' strategies are exactly the same: help elect governors and members of the Senate and House who will vote for their views. The Senate, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority, is crucial. If pro-life groups can elect like-minded senators, they believe their ally in the White House will respond to anticipated Supreme Court retirements by appointing judges who will tilt the court's power balance in favor of reversing Roe v. Wade. Pro-choice groups are busily planning to elect senators who would veto such appointees.

The Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established the right to an abortion, began in Texas when a pregnant waitress, identified in court papers by the pseudonym Jane Roe, sued District Attorney Henry Wade, whose job was to enforce a state law prohibiting abortion in all cases, except where it was necessary to save a woman's life.

The new battle is happening at two Washington offices that are hard to find, and even harder to get into.

Near Pennsylvania Ave. downtown, right beside the museum where tourists line up to see The House Where Lincoln Died, sits a white, art deco-style building with an imposing steel gate, double security doors with buzzers and a security camera peering down. Inside Franz's National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) headquarters, 10,000 square meters are spread over four floors decorated with pictures of babies and, on one table, a model showing the developing stages of the fetus.

NRLC members speak openly about "when," not if, Roe v. Wade will be overturned, with Bush's blessing. Last week he delivered an inspirational message via videotape to the group's national membership when it gathered in Pittsburgh.

Ten blocks uptown, across the parking lot from the Washington Post offices, Michelman's National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) occupies a vast array of offices on the seventh floor of a more modern building. One must pass a security guard in the lobby, have a swipe card for the elevator and then be buzzed through a security door to gain entrance.

The feeling inside among NARAL workers is of being under siege. Gone is the veto power they enjoyed for eight years under pro-choice president Bill Clinton. Since the first day of Bush's administration, when he cut off by executive order funding for international family planning programs, they have watched abortion access slowly, but determinedly, be whittled away.

For example, in January, Bush cleared the way for states to allow "unborn children" to be eligible for funding under the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). His plan would make the unborn child, not the woman, the client under CHIP and was widely perceived as an attempt to lay the groundwork for the Supreme Court to one day declare the fetus a "person" entitled to rights and protections.

The White House is also backing the state of Ohio's defense in court of its ban on mid-term, so-called "partial birth" abortions. Such abortions are very rare, but can occur in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy when the fetus is discovered to be severely damaged, or the woman's life is put in danger by the continued pregnancy. The NRLC is working with members of Congress to try to pass a national ban on partial birth abortions.

Michelman says it doesn't take much tea-leaf reading to understand the grave threat posed to Canadian women if Roe v. Wade is overturned, despite the protections of the Canadian Supreme Court's 1987 decision in the case of Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

The two countries share the world's longest undefended border. She says there is no way American pro-life groups, if emboldened further by Roe v. Wade's defeat, would stand idle while American women hop over the border for abortions. Given the existing close ties to Canadian pro-life groups, Canada would become the next battleground.

"I don't think people realize what a critical moment we've reached in the historic struggle for women's rights to reproductive freedom and choice," Michelman says.

Copyright 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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