Having finished a new book on the late Justice Harry Blackmun, and eyeing the run-up to the John Roberts confirmation, I’ve got a question: How did abortion become the central issue in American politics?
Thirty-five years ago, relatively few thought or talked about the matter, though it was rising on the attention scale. In 1972, Republicans a bit prematurely blasted the Democrats as the party of "Amnesty, Acid and Abortion." Hardly was Nixon sworn in for the second term he earned by crushing George McGovern before the Supreme Court declared abortion a constitutional right — subject to minor hindrances that we find, in practice, rarely hinder it. Today, you can’t talk about the Supreme Court without blundering up against the Question of the Hour: "What about Roe v. Wade?"
The right to terminate a pregnancy — I deliberately put the concept in neutral language — has become the linchpin in our constitutional arrangements. Last fall, it was a right so important that Catholic politicians like John Kerry suggested to their church it could take a flying leap if it expected their concurrence with Catholic teaching on unborn life.
The nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court seems to be a splendid one, but part of the reason for that is the low profile Roberts presents on abortion. Democrats can suspect him of hungering to overturn Roe, but they can’t prove it from the record. So (for now) they huff and puff and make other unpleasant sounds, as did, according to the Washington Post, Ellen Moran of the feminist fund-raising apparatus Emily’s List, in warning that "Women know what’s at stake here, and they will make their voices heard during this process and will make their voices heard at the ballot box next November."
What will those voices say? Hands off Roe v. Wade! Of course. It’s practically all those voices ever say. For them, civilization began with Roe and would end with its disappearance. The ladies who crank out these observations are tough as a boot and should be taken at their word.
Roe v. Wade, not the franchise, is the charter of the feminist movement. You exercise the franchise just a few times a year, if that. And what’s it about? The mind. Abortion is about the body, and in the 21st century, it’s bodies, not minds, and certainly not souls, that engage our most earnest attention.
If you’re a woman and can have an abortion whenever you like, then you’re in charge — just like a man. No motherhood to hold you back; no pious duties to posterity.
What you’ve got, baby, is power! Let’s hear it for power! Control! Authority! All those lovely, if morally corrosive, items! When you’ve got power, you’re No. 1. That means whoever else is around is No. 2 at best. Stick it to ’em, baby!
Well, I might exaggerate, but only a teeny bit, because 95 times out of 100 — allowing for cases where pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, and where continued pregnancy might endanger the mother’s health — abortion concerns empowerment.
Linda Greenhouse’s biography of Blackmun — who wrote the 7-2 decision in Roe, striking down state restrictions on abortion — is instructive for numerous reasons: not least the account of how Blackmun himself, on his way to becoming the court’s most liberal member, locked on the connection between Roe and power feminism. "A woman’s right to make that choice," he wrote in 1986, "is fundamental. Any other result, in our view, would protect inadequately a central part of the sphere of liberty that our law guarantees equally to all." The power feminists were duly grateful, with Gloria Steinem assuring Blackmun, "You have saved more American women’s lives than anyone in our nation’s history." Not counting, naturally, the lives of unborn post-Roe girls.
We may depend on Steinem and such to weigh in heavily concerning John Roberts. The last thing they want is jurists who might challenge their power through the assertion of constitutional principles different than their own: principles from a time when, to Americans, life came before mere power.