THIS PAST WEEK, it seems, many Americans were shocked to discover
that the U.S. Supreme Court is not at all immune to deep ideological divisions
and -- gasp! -- nasty old, nonobjective partisan politics.
Supposedly concerned about equal protection rights (for the first time
anyone can remember), the court's conservative majority jerry-built a ruling
that disenfranchised possibly thousands of Florida voters and handed the
presidency to George W. Bush. Legions of Americans were stunned and
Not among them were the women and men of the National Abortion Rights
Action League in Washington, D.C. Said NARAL executive vice president Alice
Germond: "There was a reason we handed out buttons during the presidential
campaign that said, 'It's the Supreme Court, Stupid.' I don't think people
truly appreciated the importance of the Supreme Court until now. Those of us
in the pro-choice community have been aware of it for a long time."
Over the past two decades, thanks in large part to rabidly anti-choice
political activists and presidents such as Ronald Reagan and the first George
Bush, the modest federal protections of Roe vs. Wade have been whittled to the
barest of bones. (If you question "modest," read the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court
decision. It does not, as so many anti-abortion politicians like to pretend,
sanction "abortion on demand.")
Since the 1994 takeover of Congress by the Republican right, 134 pieces of
anti-abortion legislation have made their way into the House and Senate. This
is more than six times the number of similar bills introduced between 1982 and
1992. Of the 134, pro-choice supporters have prevailed in only 24.
Meanwhile, anti-abortion state legislators and governors, such as President-
elect Bush, have denied safe abortions to poor women and teenagers and reduced
access for women who can afford them. According to NARAL, 264 anti-choice
measures have passed state legislatures, 45 of them just this year.
Until his "compassionate conservative" quest for the White House
necessitated a lower decibel level on the abortion issue, Bush was an
outspoken enemy of legal abortion. He has not only pledged to help overturn
Roe vs. Wade, he has signed into law 18 anti-abortion provisions during his
six years as governor of Texas.
Next month, Bush will become president with the power to appoint 136 vacant
federal judgeships and probably one or more justices to the high court during
his term. His ideal judicial model: the most overtly anti-choice justice on
the court, Antonin Scalia. His next-favorite: another man who believes women
do not deserve domain over their own wombs, Clarence Thomas.
"Politicians come and go," said Germond, "but the Supreme Court is with us
a long time. Both sides of the abortion issue are certainly aware that this
court has a very fragile balance. The Carhart decision (which earlier this
year upheld the essence of Roe) was 5-4. One more anti-choice justice and the
balance will shift."
During his campaign, Bush insisted there would be no litmus test on
abortion for Supreme Court nominees. If you believe that, be sure to look on
Inauguration Day for that squadron of pink pigs that is scheduled to fly over
A more accurate indication of how it's really going to be came last week
from a couple of radical right powerhouses.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, "family values" champ Gary Bauer told Bush
to immediately "name a pro-life attorney general" and "also nominate Supreme
Court justices who believe the same." In Congress, House Majority Whip Tom
DeLay included the obliteration of Roe vs. Wade as one of "the things we have
been dreaming about we can now do unfettered."
Some dream. Gone with Bill Clinton is the fetter of a pro-choice
president's veto. And, if senators who support abortion rights do not stay
true to their principles, gone too will be a razor-thin, pro-choice majority
on the Supreme Court.
Of the 50 million plurality that voted for Al Gore, Germond said: "America
is pro-choice. America voted pro-choice. George Bush can't possibly see this
as an anti-choice mandate."
But, as Germond knows, Bush may not need to see any mandates. Not with the
friends in high places that he has. As the vociferous anti-abortion Chief
Justice William Rehnquist has put it: "Roe continues to exist, but only in the
way a storefront on a western movie set exists: a mere facade to give the
illusion of reality."
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle