Rust, Roe and reality


I NEVER thought I would have a good word to say about Rus vs. Sullivan, the ridiculous Supreme Court decision upholding regulations barring doctors in federally financed clinics from discussing abortion with pregnant patients.

But the advantage is in the adjective. It seems to me that many Americans who paid no mind to abortion rights have been perplexed by the riAnnaQuindlendiculous nature of the ruling.

(It has also generated terrific editorial cartoons, cartoonists being among our finest commentators. I can't decide which I prefer, the one of the doctor with a gavel in his mouth, or the one of the clinic sign: The Supreme Court has prohibited us from informing you that having an ABORTION IS A LEGAL ALTERNATIVE.)

The universe that once consisted only of those of us who might need an abortion or have friends and relations who might need one was enlarged to include those who have asked a physician for complete information.

"I don't like the idea of abortions," one elderly woman said, "but a doctor should have to tell you the truth, even if there's politics involved."

This expansion of the universe, this recognition that politics has no place in a doctor's office, this appreciation of the ridiculous provisions of a federal gag rule, may come in handy in the future.

What was once a what-if has now become a how-soon: The Supreme Court as constituted by Ronald Reagan and George Bush is a total loss in terms of reproductive freedom and next term there is considerable likelihood that it will overturn Roe vs. .. Wade.

Whether Clarence Thomas is confirmed or not probably makes little difference. The president is not going to turn around and nominate Laurence Tribe instead.

If it is true, as polls tell us over and over again, that the American people believe abortion is a private matter, they will now have to prove it in the voting booth. They will have to press their elected representatives for federal law insuring the right to an abortion.

Failing that, they will have to push legislators to make abortion legal in their states, and elect legislators who will do so.

State courts have begun to move into the breach.

Eight have found a right to privacy that includes reproductive choice within their state constitutions.

In New York, the court of appeals will consider that issue this fall when it hears arguments in a challenge by the New York Civil Liberties Union of Medicaid funding bans. The case is Hope vs. Perales: Hope for short, and for sure.

Alternatives to constitutional protection will be neither easy nor ideal. The courts are meant to be places of principle, but the legislatures are bastions of compromise.

Legislative guarantees are likely to come with strings attached. Parental notification. Waiting periods. With state-by-state action, geography is destiny. A state constitutional right to privacy in New York is cold comfort to a girl in Louisiana who doesn't have bus fare.

All the jockeying, the lobbying, the campaigning will be quietly enraging for those who believe that what may be growing within them is uniquely their own business, not the business of a lot of men in suits.

The what-if is upon us. You'd think the Republican leadership, which incorporated opposition to legal abortion in the party platform in 1980, would be jumping up and down.

The reaction has been somewhat different.

The uproar over Rust vs. Sullivan has been so considerable, and the House rejection of clinic restrictions by a 353-to-74 vote so decisive, that the president said last week he might be amenable to some compromise.

And just a few days ago the Young Republican National Federation voted to remove from its platform an anti-abortion plank. Delegates at the group's convention decided the position was a political liability.

Interesting that that should happen now, that some political opposition softens as the removal of the constitutional protection draws nearer.

Many women have thought of Roe as an umbrella, sheltering our rights. But it has protected politicians, too, from the necessity of taking a stand anywhere but behind the podium. It will be interesting to see if George Bush will maintain his manufactured opposition to legal abortion if it means not merely appointing conservative jurists to the country's highest court, but vetoing federal legislation and thereby clearly, directly, conclusively denying the right of choice to millions of women.

Who vote.

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