WASHINGTON -- The 5-4 Supreme Court decision upholding key parts of Pennsylvania's anti-abortion law, while not categorically overturning Roe vs. Wade, nevertheless assures that abortion will be a hot-button issue in the November presidential election.
In the most basic political terms, the vote makes crystal-clear that the next president will have in his power the ability to kill Roe vs. Wade upon the next Supreme Court vacancy.
The minority in this vote -- Justices William Rehnquist, Byron White, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- wanted to deny abortion rights altogether, so the addition of one more like-minded justice could be expected to do just that. And with the senior jurist and chief author of the Roe vs. Wade decision, Harry Blackmun, in his 80s, a vacancy during the next presidency is a clear possibility.
Concluding his opinion, Blackmun put it bluntly: "I am 83 years old. I cannot remain on the court forever, and when I do step down, the confirmation process for my successor well may focus on the issue before us today."
In advance of this decision, some in the abortion-rights camp who were arguing that the surest way to mobilize effective voter pressure for new legislation affirming a woman's right to choose would be for the court to strike down Roe vs. Wade now. They noted that the Supreme Court's Webster decision in 1989, which affirmed the right of states to apply certain restrictions to the performance of abortions, served as an immense catalyst for the growth of the abortion-rights movement.
This latest decision, however, will energize both sides of the raging debate, since neither one views the outcome as satisfactory. The prospective Democratic nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, is categorically on record in support of a woman's right to choose, and his candidacy can expect even stronger support from abortion-rights groups, with the next president potentially holding the fate of these rights in his hands.
On the Republican side, had Roe vs. Wade been struck down, much of the air likely would have gone out of the effort by pro-choice Republicans at the GOP National Convention in August to knock out the anti-abortion plank that has been in the party platform since 1980. Instead, the abortion-rights forces will press on with their plan to cause grief for President Bush, firmly in the so-called pro-life camp, at his renominating convention in Houston.
As with many other issues, prospective independent candidate Ross Perot, while saying he supports a woman's right to choose, has indicated he would accept certain limitations -- a posture that is not likely to appeal to the diehards on either side.
The vote in the Pennsylvania case finally answered one question that was a centerpiece of the stormy confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Thomas, who professed to the incredulity of senators that he had not examined the issue sufficiently to have formed an opinion, unsurprisingly voted to kill Roe vs. Wade.
Bush's first appointment, David Souter, was a surprise, however, in voting with the majority. When Bush named him, the same questions were raised about where he stood on abortion, and like Thomas he declined to say. But the expectation also was that he would vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade -- and was, in fact, considered one of the reasons Bush nominated him.
Two others who joined Blackmun, Souter and John Paul Stevens in the majority -- Ronald Reagan appointees Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy -- likewise were seen as probable votes to kill the landmark abortion-rights ruling. Considering all this, the abortion-rights advocates, while clearly unhappy with the erosion of Roe vs. Wade, have reason to be relieved that some abortion rights remain.
Blackmun was probably being excessively optimistic when he commented about Roe vs. Wade's partial survival that "just when so many expected the darkness to fall, the flame has grown bright." But he added that "I fear for the darkness as four justices anxiously await the single vote necessary to extinguish the light."
It is an observation that in less elegant terms Clinton and the whole abortion-rights movement, in the hope of mobilizing the women's vote, can be expected to use against Bush from now until Election Day.