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Three Sides To The Abortion Debate

To what extent does a woman have a right to obtain an abortion? And to what extent does a person have a right to protest the practice of abortion? These are two fundamental questions, and two conflicting rights, that have emerged in the decades following the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial decision in the 1973 case ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147. With time, the conflict between those who differ on the answers to these questions, and the interpretation of these rights, has become more and more heated, to the point of violence. The question of access to abortion clinic property—whether to obtain clinic services or to protest them—has become a pressing issue.

Three major points of view dominate the abortion debate: the pro-choice, or abortion rights, view; the moderate prolife, or moderate anti-abortion, view; and the extremist (or militant) pro-life, or anti-abortion, view.

The pro-choice, or abortion rights, side of the debate is made up of a number of women's rights, family planning, and medical organizations, and other groups of concerned citizens and professionals. These include the NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (NOW), the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Abortion Federation, and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL). Many religious organizations have also taken positions that endorse the right of women to seek abortions in specific situations. Most of these pro-choice groups argue that a woman's decision to carry a pregnancy to term is a private choice that should not be interfered with by the state. They also maintain that abortion, although not a preferred family planning method, has always been used by women to gain control over their pregnancies. According to this view, women must have safe and legal access to abortion; without this access, women are likely to seek unsafe, illegal abortions that may result in their injury or death. Pro-choice advocates also maintain that giving women control over their reproductive functions—what they call their reproductive rights—is a fundamental requirement for achieving equality between men and women in U.S. society. Norma McCorvey, who sought anonymity as Jane Roe in Roe, spoke eloquently for the pro-choice position in a 1989 speech before a women's rally:

Prior to Roe v. Wade, approximately one million women had illegal abortions each year. Approximately 5,000 of these women were killed. Another 100,000 were hospitalized from botched abortions.

Obviously, abortion will continue whether it is legal or not. My concern is for the safety of millions of women should our freedom of choice be taken away from us. I want it clearly understood that I do not promote abortion. I promote personal choice.

If we return to the antique methods of dealing with unwanted pregnancies that existed before Roe v. Wade, the women's movement will be taking an enormous step backward. We are on the verge of having our reproductive freedom taken away from us if we do not take a stand and let our voices be heard NOW. (In 1995, McCorvey had a "born-again" experience and switched sides on the abortion issue.)

Pro-choice groups therefore remain committed to the constitutional right to privacy defined in Roe. They view anti-abortion demonstrations that prevent women from obtaining abortions as interfering with that right to privacy.

The pro-choice group also has a range of viewpoints within it. While all persons who describe themselves as pro-choice support a general right to abortion, some oppose some kinds of abortions, such as late-term abortions.

The moderate pro-life movement consists of many different organizations, including the NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE COMMITTEE, Human Rights Review, and Feminists for Life of America. Although its members are extremely diverse, most come from religious groups such as the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant denominations. Generally, these groups believe that the fetus is a person with rights equal to those of other people, and some of these identify the unborn person as existing in the embryonic stage or from the moment of conception. Many are willing to allow abortion in certain cases, usually when pregnancy threatens the health of the mother or has resulted from rape or INCEST. Moderates, when they support changes in abortion laws and regulations, differ from militants in their emphasis on using existing legal channels.

Militant pro-life groups share many of the views of moderate groups, but they favor an activist use of civil disobedience to prevent abortion procedures and to save or rescue the lives of the unborn. Randall Terry and Flip Benham, of the most well known anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, are representative of the militant views. Terry, Operation Rescue's founder and leading figure, participated in his first anti-abortion protest in 1984 and has served time in prison because of his demonstrations. As an evangelical Protestant Christian, Terry sees abortion as the work of the devil: "I believe that there is a devil, and here's Satan's agenda. First, he doesn't want anyone having kids. Secondly, if they do conceive, he wants them killed. If they're not killed through abortion, he wants them neglected or abused, physically, emotionally, sexually." Terry opposes abortion in all cases. His group's main tactics, he said, included "rescue missions, boycotts and protests."

A minority of the militant anti-abortion activists sanction the use of physical force. A small number even regard the killing of abortion providers as justifiable HOMICIDE. When asked to explain this increasing tendency toward violence, militant pro-life leader Joseph Scheidler, of the Pro-Life Action Network, blamed it on the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) and buffer zone restrictions that kept protesters from conducting rallies at abortion clinics. Scheidler argued that making it tougher to have peaceful protests gave people a rationale for having violent protests. Benham, of Operation Rescue, condemned the anti-abortion killings. However, after John Salvi murdered two people and wounded others in an abortion clinic shooting in late 1994, Benham commented, "There is little that federal marshals or anyone else can do to halt this murder and violence. We will not have peace outside the womb until peace is restored within the womb." Added Terry, "We're involved in a cultural civil war." In February 2003, Scheidler and his group won a major victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that the RICO statute was improperly used against the group and other pro-life activists, in the case brought against them by the National Organization for Women (Scheidler v. Nat'l Organization for Women, Inc., 537 U.S. 393, 123 S. Ct. 1057, 154 L. Ed. 2d 991 [2003]).

In the end, the extremist position may have done more to hurt than to help the anti-abortion cause. The publicized violence of the movement, in combination with the new prosecutorial powers granted in FACE, served to alienate many of the more moderate individuals in pro-life groups, reducing the membership of those groups to a militant core and making those outside the groups less sympathetic to their cause.

But as a positive result of the fallout, significant numbers from both sides tried to find common ground and an end to the mutual mistrust and ill will. Aptly calling themselves the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, the alliance made its largest impact with the political issue of partial-birth abortions, when it began a campaign to ban the procedures. This more subtle collective voice of concerned citizens appeared to represent an important change in the direction of abortion debate. In specific, the committed extremists on both ends were being replaced with a new and more sophisticated national consensus concerning the acceptable limits of abortion rights. As of March 2003, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act had won approval from the U.S. Senate and was expected to win approval from the House of Representatives later that spring.


Lerner, Sharon. 2002. "A New Kind of Abortion War." The Village Voice.

"Recent Developments on Partial-Birth Abortion." 2003. National Right to Life Website. Available online at <www.nrlc.org/abortion/pba/PartialBirthAbortionRecentDevelopments.html> (accessed April 10, 2003).

Risen, James, and Judy L. Thomas. 1998. Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. New York: Basic Books.

Scheidler, Eric. "Scheidler Victory in the Supreme Court." Available online at <www.prolifeaction.org/nowvscheidler/victory.htm> (accessed April 17, 2003).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: "But for" Rule to Additional InstructionsAbortion - History, Three Sides To The Abortion Debate, Roe V. Wade And Doe V. Bolton