As the landmark Roe v. Wade decision hits its 40th anniversary this week, each side in the abortion debate sees the other gaining ground. But 40 years after the Supreme Court legalized pregnancy termination, the unwanted pregnancy rate and the continued political standoff over fertility control suggest neither side is winning -- or at least the American public is not.
A Time magazine cover story, citing public-opinion polls and new state restrictions, claims abortion-rights activists have been ceding ground ever since abortion was legalized. On the other side, the latest National Right to Life News rues the "bitter taste" of President Barack Obama's second-term election, while trying to persuade abortion opponents their efforts in support of Mitt Romney were not in vain.
Abortion remains legal, though restricted. But if ending the need for it was a goal that advocates and opponents of legal abortion should have shared, it failed. By age 45, nearly half of American women will have had an unintended pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Nearly one in three women by that age will have had an abortion.
One reason is the prohibitive cost of birth control. Poor women are most likely to have unintended pregnancies, a Catch-22 since the likelihood of poverty increases with an unintended pregnancy. The Affordable Care Act should help reduce unplanned pregnancies by requiring full coverage for contraception in most employer-sponsored health insurance plans.
But a puzzling and self-defeating campaign against birth control by some stalwarts of the anti-abortion movement undermines the ultimate goal.
A failed Arizona bill last year would have required a woman who files an insurance claim for birth control pills to prove she wasn't taking them to prevent pregnancy. Some members of the Pharmacists for Life movement won't even sell condoms, much less birth control or morning-after pills.
The president of Iowa's Right to Life organization slammed an awareness-building campaign about long-term contraceptives aimed at college students by the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies. Politicians' efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, arguably the biggest provider of birth control at both the state and federal levels, are similarly shortsighted.
At the same time, faced with the gender gap and the perceived "war on women" that helped get Obama re-elected, the anti-abortion community has realized it needs to tweak its rhetoric to sound less as if it's trying to deny women choices and more as if it's trying to protect women.
"You and I know it's about the babies and their mothers, not about us," writes Dave Andrusko about the campaign in National Right to Life News Today. Another essay calls women "abortion's second victim."
This tactic blames the so-called abortion "industry," as if providers are not just responding to demand.
But if anti-choice extremism cost Republicans the election, the pro-choice side has its own struggle with public opinion. Three-fourths of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances, but only 41 percent call themselves pro-choice. That has enabled state-level encroachments on abortion access to grow exponentially, with more restrictions enacted in 2011 than in any prior year; 2012 was a close second.
Buoyed by Obama's victory, some abortion-rights supporters are now calling on the president to remove all restrictions on publicly funded abortions from his next federal budget proposal. For women on Medicaid, abortions are only covered if the pregnancy resulted from rape, incest or endangers the life of a pregnant woman.
"Women Stood for You. Stand With Us," says Ashley Hartman of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio in an open letter to the president, noting, "We put President Obama into office. Now my generation (women age 18 to 24) must hold Obama accountable to his commitments."
It's true that Obama won in large part thanks to pro-choice women. But the U.S. House of Representatives remains dominated by anti-choice men.
Were it not for abortion, which probably determines more than any other issue if people vote Republican or Democratic, elections would skew differently. And so, thereby, might other public policies.
People's deeply held beliefs about abortion may never change. But their political strategies can.
Forty years down the road, it's time for both sides to disarm and try something different: reaching across camps and ideologies to make unwanted pregnancies not occur in the first place.
Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.