IT TOOK FEDERAL District Court Judge John Dooling 13 months to think through -- and 642 pages to spell out -- the reasons he ruled the Hyde Amendment banning Medicaid funding for abortions unconstitutional. The decision, issued on Jan. 15, marks the end of the longest (three years), broadest and most thorough legal debate in the history of the abortion controversy.
As have other courts, this one ruled against the denial of what it termed "medically necessary" abortions. More important was the court's redefinition of that phrase. "Medically necessary" abortions, wrote Judge Dooling, are those that the woman's physician believes are necessary "in the light of all factors, physical, emotional, psychological, familial . . . relevant to the health-related well-being of the pregnant woman." The ruling thereby subscribed to the argument that emotional and psychological factors play a much larger role in many forms of illness than has previously been recognized, and should be treated as components of health and ill health.
No one case, no matter how thorough, will end the controversy over abortion. National polls consistently show that a great majority of Americans -- as high as 88 percent -- believe abortions should be legal. Intensity of feeling on the other side of the issue, however, shows no sign of abating. At the Respect Life Leadership Conference held this past weekend in preparation for today's annual anti-abortion march on the Capitol, the director of a group called Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress said, "It doesn't matter what the majority of the American people think on a poll . . . . What matters is the preception members of Congress have about your issue and their future." In other words, the secret to influencing Congress is not how many people support a particular point of view, but how many are willing to make that one issue their only criterion in judging a congressman.
Thus, after more than a decade of intense debate, the abortion question is no closer to a national consensus. Frustration on both sides has diminished what mutual understanding and mutual respect ever did exist. The Senate and the House , for their part, continue a senseless yearly stalemate that succeeds only in delaying other important legislation until necessity finally forces a compromise.
In these conditions, neither side is going to "win." Congress and the rest of the country would do best to be satisfied with Judge Dooling's simple and sensible conclusion: "The irreconcilable conflict of deeply and widely held views on this issue of individual conscience excludes any legislative intervention except that which protects each individual's freedom of conscientious decision and conscientious nonparticipation."