Today--Tuesday, January 22, 2013--marks the 40th anniversary of the historic and controversial Supreme Court decision in the case of Jane Roe, et al. v. Henry Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County (410 U.S. 113 93 S. Ct. 705; 35 L. Ed. 2d 147; 1973 U.S. LEXIS 159). The case first came up in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. This court upheld the state's law making it a crime to help a woman get an abortion. The ruling was appealed. The nation's highest court decided, by a vote of seven to two, that a woman's decision to have an abortion falls under the right to privacy in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment dates from about 150 years ago (1868), just after the Civil War.
The controversy over "Roe v. Wade"
Roe v. Wade decided the law on abortion. However, the law's existence has divided the American public. It has produced both grassroots pro-choice movements and uncompromising pro-life campaigns. In 1973, when the Court ruled in Roe v. Wade, it held that a woman's right to privacy must be balanced against the state's two legitimate interests for regulating abortions: protecting prenatal life and protecting the mother's health.
Abortion then assumed the viability framework in which it is legal today. Viability, or ability to live outside the mother's womb, with or without artificial aid, "is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks." Most American physicians and care centers use these definitions.
And the world's view? During the 1990s, United Nations conferences emphasized that respect for human rights was an essential cornerstone of development, and that empowerment of women figured into the exercise of these rights. This emphasis underlies global policies today.
"[R]eproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus documents," the world organization said. "These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed in human rights documents."
However, American controversy has swung to extremism. Argument continues today. "After all these years," said Sharon Camp, president of the Guttmacher Institute (a prominent family planning research organization), abortion likely remains "the most highly sensitive issue in our country on the personal and political level."
Political, yes; but personal? On individual views, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll measured those opposed to overturning the historic Supreme Court ruling (i.e., those who support the choice option) as 70%, or seven out of every 10 Americans. The Journal reports that is the highest level of support for Roe v. Wade since polls began tracking it in 1989.
As for the political level, the Supreme Court and lower judiciaries are not the only government bodies to have a say in abortion issues. The House and Senate debated hundreds of measures on the subject in 2012 alone. Already, Congress has seen three abortion measures during the first three weeks of 2013.
And the issue resonates in many state and local elections, as well as in national politics. Last year, 19 states approved 49 restrictions on abortions; in 2011, 24 states and 92 measures. One has to wonder why, considering enormous national sentiment to leave abortion alone and the importance of keeping the fiscal deficit down by avoiding frivolous challenges about issues already settled (in this case, 40 years ago) and reinforced by current public opinion.
Conservatives have argued the viability perspective down to the moment of conception, variously interpreted as the act of intercourse, three days after it, or five days later. Some even quibble over the availability of any family planning, although contraceptive rights are guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). That law, enacted three years ago and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2012, states that all women may receive comprehensive preventive services without co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible for contraceptive methods and counseling.
Unexpected pregnancy presents an uncomfortable to heart-wrenching situation for mothers, and for many fathers who are aware of a pregnancy as well. Still, the sentiment that "[a] woman shouldn’t be denied basic health care or the ability to make the best decision for her family just because some disagree with her decision" has come to dominate public opinion in 2012 and should command respect. "[Political manipulation] shamefully plays politics with women’s well-being," says the American Civil Liberties Union. "It has no place in our laws."
Why abortion is becoming less relevant in the 2000s
It's likely that surgical and medical abortions are on their way out anyway, just as the nonlatex animal-derived condoms used before the 20th century disappeared. Now, emergency contraception--birth control used after sexual intercourse, often called the "morning-after" pill"--offers women a less painful, earlier, and briefer path to avoiding unexpected pregnancy.
Statistically, most requests for emergency contraception pills come from (1) women in their teens or twenties, who often don’t use birth control reliably, and (2) older women in their 40s who didn’t think they needed to contracept. ECs have special importance for younger women, who are not as comfortable with sexual activity as adults. They are also a useful backup in case a primary contraception method fails.
Even stringent opponents of ECs usually make an exception in cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening consequences for the mother. When pregnancy occurs through nonconsensual sex, if the assaulted woman goes to an emergency room, by law the ER must give her information about emergency contraception. However, in some areas emergency rooms are not required to dispense ECs. A woman who wants EC after being raped can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
YOU CAN FIND other emergency numbers here.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation's leading sexual and reproductive health care provider and advocate, is online and also in the phone directory. Planned Parenthood and its affiliated local organizations have many neighborhood offices. The organization has offered pregnancy testing, counseling, and medical referrals for nearly 100 years. It keeps current with medical science and is a respected source for emergency contraception. Women with unexpected pregnancies can reach the nearest Planned Parenthood Health Center by calling 1-800-230-PLAN (7526). Planned Parenthood also offers help with sexually transmitted diseases, body image, and general health care.
By preventing pregnancy after unprotected sexual intercourse, in the long run EC offers the possibility of significantly reducing both unintended pregnancies and abortions in the United States, and elsewhere in the world.
EC pills are not the same as"the abortion pill"
RU-486, or mifepristone, is not an EC pill. Many people do not understand the difference between morning-after and abortion drugs. RU-486 not only prevents a fertilized ovum (blastocyst) from attaching to the lining of a woman's uterus. It may also remove a growing embryo from the uterine wall. In the latter sense, RU-486 is an abortifacient. It prevents a fertilized ovum, which is called a blastocyst, from attaching to the womb. Women can use it any time through 48 days post-conception.
Instead, ECs are truly contraceptive, preventing fertilization of a woman's ovum by a man's sperm, or contragestive, used within 72 hours of sex (preferably less) to prevent the blastocyst from attaching, which usually happens between 5 to 10 days after conception.
“Emergency contraception, first and foremost, is not an abortifacient,” Dr. Andrea Palmer, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Lakeside Women's Hospital in Oklahoma City, said. “It is not going to dislodge or disrupt an already implanted pregnancy. It's not something that is going to cause an implanted pregnancy to no longer be implanted or to abort.”
If the blastocyst does not attach, it is incapable of sustaining life. An unattached blastocyst never becomes a self-supporting embryo. This means that it cannot develop into a fetus at about two months, when all the major organs of the body have been started.
Based in Chicago, Sandy Dechert has researched and covered birth control issues since the 1990s. She recently reported on health care issues in 2012, mental and physical health over the holidays, health issues during the Presidential race, and the provisions and national debate over the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (Obamacare). Please note that the information in this column does not constitute individual medical advice.
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