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Issue Summary: Abortion


Nat'l Organization For Women Marks Roe V. Wade Anniversary At Supreme Court
Brendan Hoffman/Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Abortion refers to the voluntary termination of a pregnancy, resulting in the death of the fetus or embryo. Abortions performed prior to the third trimester are legal in the United States, although the issue has polarized mainstream political parties. Almost all state Democratic Party platforms support abortion while almost all state Republican Party platforms oppose it.

Pro-choice groups believe that a woman should have access to whatever health care she needs and that she should have control over her own body. Pro-life groups believe that the embryo or fetus is "alive" and thus abortion is tantamount to murder. Finally, there is the issue of state intervention: to what degree should the state have a say in a pregnancy?

Cited in American Prospect, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) asserts that women's reproductive rights are more restricted now than at the time of Roe in 1973. There are two questions at the forefront of the debate: should "partial birth" abortions ("intact dilation and extraction") be legal and should first trimester abortions remain legal?

Current Status

The most controversial issue is the so-called "partial birth" abortion, a rare procedure. Beginning in the mid-90s, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representative and U.S. Senate introduced legislation to ban "partial birth" abortions. In late 2003, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (HR 760, S 3).

This federal legislation was drafted after the Supreme Court ruled Nebraska's "partial birth" abortion law unconstitutional because it did not allow a doctor to use the procedure even if it were the best method to preserve the health (life) of the mother. Congress attempted to circumvent this ruling by declaring that the procedure is never medically necessary.

Challenges were filed in California, Nebraska, and New York. On June 2, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton (San Francisco) struck down the federal statute on three grounds: it places an undue burden on a woman seeking a second trimester abortion, the language is unconstitutionally vague, and the law does not have the required exception for procedures that preserve a woman's health.

The case is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Action has moved to the statehouse, where 16 bills were enacted between January and May 2005; this is more than passed during calendar 2004, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights policy organization.


Abortion has existed in almost every society and was legal under Roman law, which also condoned infantcide. Today, almost two-thirds of the women in the world may obtain a legal abortion.

When America was founded, abortion was legal. Laws prohibiting abortion were introduced in the mid-1800s, and, by 1900, most had been outlawed. Outlawing abortion did nothting to prevent pregnancy, and some estimates put the number of annual illegal abortions from 200,000 to 1.2 million in the 50s and 60s.

States began liberalizing abortion laws in the 1960s, reflecting changed societal mores and, perhaps, the number of illegal abortions. Then in 1965, the Supreme Court introduced the idea of a "right to privacy" in Griswold v. Connecticut as it struck down laws that banned the sale of condoms to married people.

Abortion was legalized in 1973 when the U.S.Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that during the first trimester, a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body. This landmark decision rested on the "right to privacy" which was introduced in 1965. In addition, the Court ruled that the state could intervene in the second trimester and could ban abortions in the third trimester. However, a central issue, which the Court declined to address, is whether human life begins at conception, at birth, or at some point in between.

In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court overturned Roe's trimester approach and introduced the concept of viability. Today, approximately 90% of all abortions occur in the first 12 weeks.

In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-abortion activism -- spurred on by opposition from Roman Catholics and conservative Christian groups -- turned from legal challenges to the streets. The organization Operation Rescue organized blockades and protests around abortion clinics. Many of these techniques were prohibited by the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
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