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Fetal attraction | Forty years after Roe v Wade, abortion is still nation's most contentious social issue

By today’s politically polarized standards, the Supreme Court’s history-changing Roe v. Wade ruling was a landslide. Voting 7-2 on Jan. 22, 1973, the justices established a woman’s right to control her own reproductive system.

Forty years and roughly 55 million abortions later, however, the ruling’s legacy is the opposite of consensus. While there’s been a strong trend of increasing support in recent years for same-sex marriage – support that encompasses nearly all major demographic groups – choice remains the most intractably divisive social issue in America.

A new Pew Research Center poll found that 63 percent of U.S. adults oppose overturning Roe, compared to 60 percent in 1992. In the latest Gallup poll on the issue, 52 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, 25 percent want it legal in all cases and 20 percent want to outlaw it period. That’s roughly the same breakdown as in the 1970s.

“Unlike a lot of other issues in the culture wars, this is the one in which both sides really regard themselves as civil rights activists, trying to expand the frontiers of human freedom,” said Jon Shields, a professor of government at California’s Claremont McKenna College. “That’s a recipe for permanent conflict.”

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin conducted polling in September 2012 that found only 13 percent of voters in the state want to ban abortion outright, said PPWI public policy director Nicole Safar. At the same time, the survey found that 80 percent of Wisconsinites back a woman's access to legal abortion.

Unfortunately, representatives of the small percentage of opponents to choice “just happen to be in leadership” in Madison right now, Safar said.

As a result, Wisconsin – along with a number of other states where tea party radicals took control of government in 2010 – has seen an onslaught of legislation designed to make abortion, as well as all women’s reproductive health services, much more difficult to access. Just months after taking the reins of state government in 2011, the GOP eliminated all state funding for PPWI, which primarily provides such women’s health services as cancer and STD screenings. Abortions account for less than 2 percent of the group’s health care services, but even that was enough to prompt Republican tea party leaders to imperil the general health of tens of thousands of poor women for whom PPWI is their primary care provider.

Those same leaders in Madison also repealed the Healthy Youth Act, which assured access to factual reproductive information in public schools. And they tried to enact a so-called “personhood amendment,” which, in addition to giving a fertilized egg the same rights as a person, would have made some forms of birth control punishable by law.

A version of the personhood amendment proved too radical even for the Bible Belt, where voters in Mississippi rejected such a law. But even that response failed to deter the concept. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is currently promoting a personhood law at the federal level.

Normalized extremism

Extremism is the new normal on reproductive issues in GOP politics, according to pro-choice advocates. Mainstream Republicans would like to ditch the issues altogether following the roles they played in defeating Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and in contributing to Democratic gains in the U.S. Senate, political observers say. But the obsession of a small but shrill minority of anti-abortion activists makes the issue impossible for them to ignore.

Political observers said state Sen. Alberta Darling is a prime example of the forced migration toward extremism among Wisconsin Republicans. A resident of River Hills, an upscale enclave of north of Milwaukee, Darling served on PPWI’s board of directors for 11 years. But as her party’s leadership veered sharply right, she was dragged along.

Times have changed dramatically for Republicans like Darling. She can no longer remain in office simply by schmoozing about facelifts with her rich backers’ wives at the country club. To avoid being forced to run against a well-financed born-again challenger, Darling had to be born-again herself – as a virulent anti-choice activist. She’s had to rewrite her history Soviet-style.

Safar said a few Republicans have simply resigned their seats in recent years rather than suffer the humiliation of publicly drinking the far-right’s Kool-Aid the way that Darling has. Safar said that’s why, despite polling that shows broad support for choice, she expects to see more efforts to whittle away at Roe v. Wade in the state’s current Assembly session.

With the GOP firmly in control of all facets of state government, including the Supreme Court, it’s likely that some restrictive measures will become law this session. Although they will fall short of banning abortion outright, they will continue the anti-choice movement’s efforts to make abortion “humiliating and onerous,” Safar said. “They’re just designed to make women feel bad.”

Dr. Douglas Laube of Madison, who began performing abortions as part of his practice a year after the Roe decision, is worried by the spread of anti-abortion state laws, but encouraged by the surge of women becoming obstetrician-gynecologists in the state – a trend he hopes will ease the shortage of abortion providers.

“I see the movement toward the religious right being countered by a growing movement among practitioners and advocates for maintaining this as legal,” he said. “That means the controversy will continue. But it also means we will hold our ground.”

Even though the immediate future looks bleak for pro-choice activists in states such as Wisconsin, the prospects at the federal level received a big boost with the re-election of Barack Obama over anti-abortion Republican Mitt Romney.

The Supreme Court’s justices are believed to divide 5-4 in favor of a broad right to abortion. Romney, if elected, might have been able to appoint conservative justices who could help overturn Roe v. Wade, but Obama’s victory makes that unlikely at least for the next four years.

Pro-choice groups also were heartened by the backlash to extremist anti-abortion initiatives and rhetoric that was suffered by Republicans last November.

In Missouri and Indiana, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate lost races that their party initially expected to win after making widely criticized comments regarding abortion rights for impregnated rape victims. In Virginia, protests combined with mockery on late-night TV shows prompted GOP politicians to scale back a bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound.

“All these things got Americans angry and got them to realize just how extreme the other side is,” said Jennifer Dalven, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

“This issue will remain very divisive,” she said. “But I do see this as a sea-change moment. The American public wants abortion to remain safe, legal and accessible."

For more WiG coverage of the fight for reproductive freedom in Wisconsin, go to

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