03/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Backsliding on Roe

Some people think Barack Obama can end the culture wars. In historical terms, that would be like predicting in year 50 of the Hundred Years War, that the light at the end of the tunnel was just ahead.

The Culture Wars will continue because it's just about all the right has left. Fiscal conservatism? George Bush knocked that into a cocked hat. An American century backed up by military force? The neocons screwed that up with the fiasco in Iraq. Smaller government? Gone, after Bush in effect nationalized the financial system.

But what did conservatives jump on first in the stimulus package? A family planning program that involved condoms. Many on the right hope that hot-button issues like abortion, contraception, school prayer and creationism will keep people voting against their own pocketbooks and for the tub-thumper issues that the religious right feeds on.

But there are some liberals who are so eager to end the culture wars, and to get back the white male vote, that they are perfectly happy to throw women under the bus. The strategy? Let Roe v. Wade go down and return the issue to the states.

Damon Linker blogs for the New Republic, "How could Obama -- how could liberals, how could supporters of abortion rights -- both win and end the culture war, once and for all? By supporting the reversal or significant narrowing of Roe, allowing abortion policy to once again be set primarily by the states -- a development that would decisively divide and demoralize the conservative side of the culture war by robbing it of the identity politics that holds it together as a national movement."

This issue gains special relevance with the news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a firm supporter of women's rights, is battling cancer. Most of us hope Ginsburg will be healthy and back on the court as soon as possible, but her illness underlines the importance of the retreat from Roe by some on the left.

Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, argued in the Atlantic that overturning Roe might be good for Democrats, because the pro-life forces would overreach, alienating the public. "When the dust settles, in five or ten or thirty years, early-term abortions would be protected and late-term ones restricted."

In the interim, of course, in the states that adopted draconian restrictions, women would have to bear children they could not afford to support, either emotionally or financially. Rich women, as usual, could travel to a blue state, check into an upscale hotel and have the procedure. Poor and working-class women would have a much harder time. We might even see the return of the coat hanger, as desperate women try to self-induce abortions. I remember a time when abortion was illegal, and I know women who went to back-alley abortionists. Some were lucky and got skilled doctors; others had physical problems for years thanks to unsterile conditions or unskilled providers, and the unluckiest of all died at the hands of such people.

Brookings Institute fellow Benjamin Wittes writes, "Since its inception, Roe has had a deep legitimacy problem, stemming from its weakness as a legal opinion. Conservatives who fulminate that the Court made up the right to abortion, which appears explicitly nowhere in the Constitution, are being simplistic -- but they're not entirely wrong. In the years since the decision an enormous body of academic literature has tried to put the right to an abortion on firmer legal ground. But thousands of pages of scholarship notwithstanding, the right to abortion remains constitutionally shaky; abortion policy is a question that the Constitution -- even broadly construed -- cannot convincingly be read to resolve."

But similar arguments were made for years against Brown v. Board of Education. Conservative legal scholars said the decision was more an act of sociology than of law. But if memory serves, no liberals argued that we ought to repeal Brown and bring back segregated schools, because of the "softness" of the decision.

It's certainly unlikely that Barack Obama will appoint a pro-life justice to the court, but it's disturbing that some on the left don't seem to think that women's reproductive rights are all that important. Roe is going to need all the support that can be mustered, because the departure of the Bush administration may bring the extreme factions in the pro-life movement to the fore. Bush after all, kept throwing them goodies to keep them quiet. He appointed to an influential FDA panel on women's health an OB-GYN who would not prescribe birth control to his patients because they might practice premarital sex. He also decreed that women suffering from premenstrual syndrome should read the Bible.

In one of Bush's last moves, he approved a "conscience clause" by the department of Health and Human Services, allowing workers at more than 584,000 U.S. medical facilities that receive federal funding to refuse to provide care or administer procedures with which they disagree, including emergency contraception. The rule could prohibit states from enforcing laws that require hospitals to offer the morning-after pill for rape victims.

As a pro-choice president moves into the White House, will the newly frustrated, violent wing of the pro-life movement return to the days of clinic bombings and the targeting of doctors who provide abortion?

In recent years, reports the Southern Poverty Law Center, many in the pro-life movement have moved away from public demonstrations, alienated by the violent few. "But at the same time, those who have always advocated some violence have become increasingly revolutionary, seeing themselves as fighting a holy war to recreate society in a religious mold. Today, those in the most militant wing of the anti-abortion movement are more and more willing to kill."

Over the last 20 years, violent anti-abortion activists have committed six murders and 15 attempted murders and have also been behind some 200 bombings and arsons, 72 attempted arsons, 750 death and bomb threats and hundreds of acts of vandalism, intimidation, stalking and burglary.

Media images of abortion have moved decisively to the right since the early days after Roe was decided, when it was regarded as a vindication of the rights of women to control their own lives, and to leave the decision of whether and when to bear a child to a woman and her doctor. Today, try to find a television show or a popular film that presents a woman opting to have an abortion with anything resembling approval. More typical is the movie "Knocked Up" in which a female television reporter has a one-night stand with a nerdy slacker and gets pregnant. What does she do? She leaves her job and marries the slob -- who, in the unlikeliest of denouements, magically turns into a good dad and husband.

What's really likely in such a scenario? The woman would end up as a single mother with no job, and the child's father would run away as fast as he could from responsibility.

Today, those who support abortion rights need to argue forcefully that reproductive freedom is an important human right. Women must not be forced by law or custom to bear children without their consent. Roe v. Wade was a giant step for the rights of women, and deserves the strongest possible support from those on the left.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of Selling Anxiety,: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)