A vote away from women's repression

Posted: Wednesday, July 05, 2000

It's one of those times when numbers speak louder than words.

Not that the words weren't powerful enough. In striking down the Nebraska ban on so-called ``partial-birth abortion,'' Justice Stephen Breyer wrote directly, graphically, and to the point.

The law didn't take into account the health of the woman. It threatened doctors with prosecution, conviction, imprisonment. It imposed ``an undue burden'' on a woman's ability to chose. And so, he wrote in the most succinct words of all: ``We must consequently find the statue unconstitutional.''

This controversy has always been about language as much as law. In a public relations coup, a semantic first strike, anti-abortion strategists grabbed the most highly charged emotional vocabulary. They scored debating points in the endless, irreconcilable fight with the creation of a term, ``partial-birth abortion.''

The powerful image conjured by this phrase was of a healthy late-term fetus, arbitrarily aborted on the way to delivery. The Catholic bishops projected the image of women who chose to abort at seven or eight months in order to fit into a prom dress.

It was part of a tactic, a verbal tactic, to criminalize abortion one procedure at a time. And indeed, one state after another - some 30 in all - adopted bans directed, or so they said, at just one gruesome medical procedure. Congress in turn repeatedly voted for a ban by a margin that's nearly veto-proof.

Of course, ``partial-birth abortion'' doesn't exist in the medical terminology. For that matter, Roe vs. Wade has already given states the right to regulate post-viability abortions as long as these limits didn't interfere with the life or health of the woman.

That doesn't matter to the political linguists. And make no mistake, partial- birth abortion is - and will remain - political fighting words.

Today, it's the numbers that tell the story. The most important Supreme Court decision on abortion in years was decided by a five-to-four majority. One of the five, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has long straddled the two sides of this issue, and this time her opinion left the door open to another version of these laws.

A mere turn of one vote, a change of one seat if not one mind, and the decision would have gone to those like Justice Antonin Scalia, who described a ``shudder of revulsion,'' or Clarence Thomas, who heatedly dissented, using words like ``abortion on demand'' and ``infanticide. ''

It is the math behind the measured reaction of Janet Benshoof, the head of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which represented the doctor in this case, when she called this a time for ``champagne and shivers.''

Such a close decision turns the mind onto the political arithmetic. Justice Stevens is 80; Rehnquist is 75, O'Connor is 70. The next president will likely appoint the deciding vote.

It's said that only a small number of Americans are ``single-issue'' voters. Fewer people, we are told, vote for the presidency with Supreme Court appointments in mind.

But this year more of us may go back to basics - addition and subtraction.

In the wake of this decision, J.C. Watts, the chair of the House Republican Conference, said frankly, ``I look forward to the day when a Republican president will replace retiring liberals. ...'' But his candidate is nowhere near that frank.

George Bush the father was pro-life. Barbara the mother winked and nodded until she left the White House. George the son has tried to make the abortion issue disappear altogether.

The surprise story of this campaign so far has been Bush's strong support among women. Strategists are toying with pro-choice vice presidents and ways to keep the suburban married women in his camp. With the convention a month away, his people would have us believe that an anti-abortion plank on a Republican platform is meaningless, mere words.

But in the wake of this close, close call, the political equation has become a lot harder. The ``partial birth'' case was never about one medical procedure. It was about who makes medical and moral decisions: the woman and her doctor, or the government.

So far the verdict is for the woman. Five to four ... and counting.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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