Decided by one vote -- yours


HISTORY was being made Monday. You could tell because Justice Harry Blackmun and Randall Terry agreed about something. Justice Blackmun, the author of Roe vs. Wade, and Mr. Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, both said the same thing when the Supreme Court decision affirming a constitutional right to abortion -- but upholding state restrictions -- was handed down.

One vote, they each said, one with anguish, the other with rage. One vote.

That is what you need to remember about what happened this week. The ruling on Roe was 5 to 4. One vote. It was a most confusing day. It is not often that those who support legal abortion and those who oppose it agree on anything. But both said the decision was dreadful, and that left many Americans befuddled about what it all meant.

It was a most personal ruling by the court, as though the tumult in the streets was a fever that had reached inside and infected even those nine so insulated from the world.

Justice Scalia's dissent espousing the overthrow of Roe was angry and dismissive of the majority opinion. "Its length, and what might be called its epic tone, suggest that its authors believe they are bringing to an end a troublesome era," he sniped.

Justice Blackmun's frustration at the ebb tide of judicial liberalism burst out in an attack on Chief Justice Rehnquist: "The chief justice's criticism of Roe follows from his stunted conception of individual liberty."

But perhaps the most personal part of the decision was that upholding the right to an abortion. Written by Justices Souter, Kennedy and O'Connor, characterized by Justice Blackmun as "an act of personal courage," it stated a central truth, too seldom evoked: "the liberty of the woman is at stake in a sense unique to the human condition and so unique to the law."

And it continued: "The mother who carries a child to full term is subject to anxieties, to physical constraints, to pain that only she must bear. That these sacrifices have from the beginning of the human race been endured by woman with a pride that ennobles her in the eyes of others and gives to the infant a bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the state to insist she make the sacrifice.

"Her suffering is too intimate and personal for the state to insist, without more, upon its own vision of the woman's role, however dominant that vision has been in the course of our history and our culture. The destiny of the woman must be shaped to a large extent on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society."

Those leaders with whom I agree about the necessity of legal abortion concentrated, not upon the eloquent vision in that opinion, but upon the restrictions upheld.

I think waiting periods make abortion unnecessarily difficult for vTC women who must travel great distances, and parental consent is intended to scare teen-agers who must face a judge if they cannot face their mothers. I mourn a shift from a "fundamental right" to a right which must only contain no "undue burden."

But it does not serve accurate reporting -- or even successful spin control -- to say this decision guts Roe. Quite the contrary: Justices once thought hostile to the unique questions of liberty and privacy raised by this issue apprehend them in ways we did not imagine. They got it, folks. And I, for one, applaud.

I am sorry the Pennsylvania restrictions were upheld. But today it is critical to stress the reaffirmation and how tenuously it holds. If we want to raise the alarm, it will not be done by decrying counseling provisions.

Justice Blackmun: "I fear for the darkness as four justices anxiously await the single vote necessary to extinguish the light."

Terry: "We need one more justice . . . "

George Bush has shown himself willing to nominate a second-rate jurist to satisfy a standard of conservative extremism. And zealots like Mr. Terry will be pressuring him for another such.

"I am 83 years old," Justice Blackmun wrote plaintively of his mortality and perhaps of Roe's. Surely this must shape the election. Surely pro-choice Republican women must consider how they will explain to their daughters their re-election of a man who will attempt to rescind the basic human right of bodily integrity.

One vote. Pennsylvania is important. November is critical. This has always been a personal matter. It just got more personal. One vote. Yours.

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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