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Support Choice, Not Roe

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, October 20, 2005

A very long time ago, I had a friend who had a girlfriend who became pregnant and did not want the child. By then my friend had disappeared and the young woman was alone -- she was in fact from Germany -- and asked me to arrange an abortion for her. With little thought, I did so. She went home to Germany and I never saw her again.

I would do things a bit differently now. I would give the matter much more thought. I no longer see abortion as directly related to sexual freedom or feminism, and I no longer see it strictly as a matter of personal privacy, either. It entails questions about life -- maybe more so at the end of the process than at the beginning, but life nonetheless.

This is not a fashionable view in some circles, but it is one that usually gets grudging acceptance when I mention it. I know of no one who has flipped on the abortion issue, but I do know of plenty of people who no longer think of it as a minor procedure that only prudes and right-wingers oppose. The antiabortion movement has made headway.

That shift in sentiment is not apparent in polls because they do not measure doubt, only position: for or against. But between one and the other, black or white, is a vast area of gray where up or down, yes or no, fades to questions about circumstance: Why, what month, etc.? Whatever the case, the very basis of the Roe v. Wade decision -- the one that grounds abortion rights in the Constitution -- strikes many people now as faintly ridiculous. Whatever abortion may be, it cannot simply be a matter of privacy.

That right of privacy, first enunciated in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, once made sense. It overturned a state law forbidding the use of contraceptives by married couples. The average person could easily understand that a right of privacy was at issue here. If the government telling you what you can and cannot do in your own bedroom is not about privacy, then what is? The Connecticut law had to go. If the state legislature wasn't going to take it off the books, then the court had to.

Abortion is a different matter. It entails so much more than mere birth control -- issues that have roiled the country ever since the Roe decision was handed down in 1973 -- and so much more than mere privacy. As a layman, it's hard for me to raise profound constitutional objections to the decision. But it is not hard to say it confounds our common-sense understanding of what privacy is.

If a Supreme Court ruling is going to affect so many people then it ought to rest on perfectly clear logic and up-to-date science. Roe , with its reliance on trimesters and viability, has a musty feel to it, and its argument about privacy raises more questions than it answers. For instance, if the right to an abortion is a matter of privacy then why, asked Princeton professor Robert P. George in the New York Times, is recreational drug use not? You may think you ought to have the right to get high any way you want, but it's hard to find that right in the Constitution. George asks the same question about prostitution. Legalize it, if you want -- two consenting adults, after all -- but keep Jefferson, Madison and the rest of the boys out of it.

Conservatives -- and some liberals -- have long argued that the right to an abortion ought to be regulated by states. They have a point. My guess is that the more populous states would legalize it, the smaller ones would not, and most women would be protected. The prospect of some women traveling long distances to secure an abortion does not cheer me -- I'm pro-choice, I repeat -- but it would relieve us all from having to defend a Supreme Court decision whose reasoning has not held up. It seems more fiat than argument.

For liberals, the trick is to untether abortion rights from Roe . The former can stand even if the latter falls. The difficulty of doing this is obvious. Roe has become so encrusted with precedent that not even the White House will say how Harriet Miers would vote on it, even though she is rigorously antiabortion and politically conservative. Still, a bad decision is a bad decision. If the best we can say for it is that the end justifies the means, then we have not only lost the argument -- but a bit of our soul as well.

cohenr@washpost.com

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