Norma McCorvey, a slight, green-eyed carnival worker known as "Pixie" to her friends, was raped by three men as she returned to her motel one night in 1969.
Her pregnancy set off a social revolution.
McCorvey, then 21, did not want the baby. The product of a broken home in Dallas, she was a high school dropout, a bride and mother at 16, a divorce within a year, a troubled and impoverished young woman who considered herself one of life's losers.
Under the pseudonym of Jane Roe, her case, Roe v. Wade, became the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision overturning anti-abortion laws in Texas and in other states.
Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the decision, one of the most controversial and hotly debated in the court's history.
It has drastically changed the court's image, fostered wholesale attacks on "judicial activism" and mobilized thousands of supporters and opponents of legalized abortion in a debate that has reshaped the political terrain in many states and, at times, virtually halted the work of Congress.
Few court decisions have had a more immediate impact on such a personal aspect of American life. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research affiliate of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America:
* An estimated 13 million abortions, involving 9 million American women, have been performed during the decade.
* The number of abortions performed annually grew from 744,600 in 1973 to 1.55 million in 1980, the last year for which complete figures are available.
* One in four pregnancies now ends in an abortion, making it one of the nation's most commonly performed surgical procedures.
* Each year, 3 percent of American women of reproductive age (15 to 44) have an abortion, and 60 percent are not using contraceptive devices at the time they became pregnant. The procedure has become so prevalent that more than half of those surveyed in a Washington Post/ABC News poll knew at least one woman who has had an abortion, and 40 percent knew two or more who have.
Abortion remains one of the most divisive items on the national agenda, involving the most basic and private decisions in life.
Few issues strike so directly at personal life styles, attitudes and values. Perhaps no other puts the interests of men and women, the born and the unborn, woman and child, one generation and the next, in more dramatic conflict.
To abortion opponents, an unborn generation lost that conflict during the last decade.
"The cream of America has been killed, killed in abortion facilities around the nation, 15 million body count, larger than the total of all the wars of our nation multiplied many times over," Dr. Jack C. Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said last week.
To Willke and other "pro-life" leaders, abortion is murder, and Roe v. Wade is the equivalent of the Dred Scott decision, the 1857 Supreme Court ruling that held slaves were not legal persons but property to be bought and sold.
To its supporters, Roe v. Wade was a liberating, not enslaving, decision, and the last decade was a continuing battle to cling to a right. They argue that legalized abortion has given women options that men have always enjoyed, a choice over when, and if, they want to bear children, marry or enter careers.
To them, abortion is a deeply personal matter, best left up to every woman.
The public is ambivalent on the subject.
Opinion polls have repeatedly found broad support for legalized abortion in certain circumstances. In 1982, for examples, polls taken for the National Opinion Research Center found that 92 percent of Americans support abortion in cases where a woman's health is endangered, 87 percent when the pregnancy results from rape and 84 percent when there is a strong chance of a serious birth defect.
But the same polls found the public deeply divided about abortion on demand. They showed that 52 percent of Americans support abortion when the family cannot afford more children, 49 percent when the woman is unmarried and 49 percent if the woman is married and does not want any more children. The Clinic
Routh Street Women's Clinic, located in a pleasant neighborhood one mile from downtown Dallas, is a product of Roe v. Wade, a place where two doctors perform about 3,000 abortions annually.
Three-fourths of the nation's abortions occur in 429 such clinics, 10 of which are located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Their ads occupy three full yellow pages in the telephone book.
Founded five years ago by feminist activists, Routh Street Women's Clinic looks like a tastefully decorated advertising agency. It has a friendly, low-keyed atmosphere and a political mission. Director Charlotte Taft is president of the Texas Abortion Rights Action League. The Dallas chapter of the National Organization for Women meets in an upstairs room.
One could learn to hate men on Routh Street. Each woman who comes here has her own special set of circumstances.
Sandy, 15, came with her parents and her godparents, all of whom, she said, "want to protect me."
She had been having sexual relations with her boyfriend, 16, for a year before she become pregnant. She had never used birth control, nor talked to her parents about it. "I think my mother was scared to talk about it when she thought I was a virgin," she said.
Sandy could not believe it when she became pregnant and, for a time, considered having the baby. "I used not to believe in abortion," she said one day last week. "Until it became my turn to have one, I thought it was just like killing a baby. Now I think it's good in some cases."
Her boyfriend did not go to the clinic. He was in jail, charged with shooting at a policeman. Sandy is in ninth grade.
Valorie, 19, is a cleaning lady, her husband a garbage man. A tiny, slender woman, she has been pregnant nine times, five during the last two years.
"We've got two kids at home, and we've tried everything to keep from having another, but nothing works," she said. "After the last time, my doctor told me I wasn't well enough to get pregnant again, so my husband had a vasectomy. It didn't work. Now I don't have much choice. Either I get an abortion . . . or I could go through term and have a baby that we can't afford."
Rebecca, 19 and newly married, went to the clinic for her second abortion since September. "I feel ready for a child physically but not emotionally," she said. "My husband and I want children, but we feel a baby would rob us [of] getting to know each other right now.
"I'm a Catholic, and I was always brought up to think that birth control and abortion are wrong," she said. "Right now, I hope God can understand the decision I've made, and He can forgive me."
On Routh Street, abortions occur in the same kind of examination room found in any doctor's office. Before entering, each patient has an individual counseling session and is given a flier that describes abortion as safer than riding a motorcyle, driving a car, canoeing or continuing pregnancy.
The abortion procedure, the "suction aspiration" method, takes about seven minutes and is used in 90 percent of U.S. abortions. At the Routh Street Clinic, it costs $195 if the woman is fewer than 12 weeks pregnant. The extract, or "product of conception," is placed in a small plastic container and sent to a pathologist for examination.
Norma McCorvey, coincidentally, never had an abortion. She gave birth to her unwanted child and placed it for adoption. The Reaction
She was hanging wallpaper in the kitchen with her roommate on Jan. 22, 1973, when news of Roe v. Wade came over the radio. She later recalled being "bumfuzzled, shocked." She had never bothered to tell her roommate that she was Jane Roe. She had never thought her case would result in such a sweeping decision.
Neither did many others. The nation was largely unprepared for Roe v. Wade.
Abortion, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote in his decision, was almost as old as history itself. The ancient Ephesians, Greeks, Romans and Persians practiced it. Plato and Aristotle wrote about it.
Laws restricting abortion in the United States, Blackmun said, "are of a relatively recent vintage," the result of efforts in the late 1800s to protect women's health. Medical and public opinion, fanned by tales of injury and death in illegal back-alley abortions, slowly shifted. So did state laws.
By 1972, 17 states had liberalized abortion laws, and 600,000 legal abortions were performed.
When Roe v. Wade was handed down on a day known as "Black Monday" among abortion opponents, there were immediate questions:
Where would abortions be performed? Who would get them? Would they promote promiscuity or the demise of the family? Would abortion, as some black leaders charged, result in racial genocide?
Today, many of the questions of a decade ago are answered. Abortions have become a big business.
Seventy-six percent of abortions are performed on unmarried women; 30 percent of those having an abortion are under 19, and 6 percent are over 35. Blacks, who comprise about 11 percent of the female population, have 31 percent of all abortions, a disproportionate share, but the issue of racial genocide has largely disappeared. The Politics
Instead of resolving the abortion issue, the Supreme Court inflamed it. The politics of emotion took over, with heavy religious and moral overtones.
Scores of "right-to-life" groups, composed of passionately committed people, sprang up in what some of their leaders call "the greatest grass-roots political movement since abolition." They found powerful allies in the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups, and more recently among such evangelical fundamentalists as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority.
With members scattered throughout the nation, "right-to-life" groups immersed themselves in the mechanics of politics. They bought billboards saying "Abortion Is Murder," published leaflets with graphic pictures of unborn fetuses and picketed abortion supporters. Some of the most radical occasionally vandalized abortion clinics.
Abortion became an issue capable of making and breaking political careers. Politicians treated it gingerly. "No one likes to be called a baby killer," explained Nanette Falkenberg, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
The groups made major inroads during the 1978 elections, but 1980 was their big year. The Republican Party wrote a tough anti-abortion plank into its platform; a firm foe of abortion, Ronald Reagan, became president, and right-to-life groups played a part in defeating liberal Democratic senators, giving "pro-life" forces a majority in House and Senate.
Legislative success has been more elusive. Their greatest victories have come in enacting riders to appropriations bills, sponsored by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and banning use of federal Medicaid funds for abortions for poor women. So-called Hyde amendments have been enacted annually since 1978.
But last year, before the movement could take advantage of its strength and expand its gains, it divided over approach.
One faction favored a constitutional amendment, sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and requiring a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate for passage before being sent to the states for ratification. It would give states and the federal government concurrent power to enact laws banning abortion.
Another faction favored a "Human Life" bill, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), which required only a simple majority of those voting in each house for passage. It sought to void Roe v. Wade by writing into law that human life begins at conception. It also sought to prohibit federal courts from overturning state laws banning abortion.
Last fall, Helms attempted to attach a modified version of his "Human Life" bill as a rider to a measure to raise the federal debt ceiling. It was defeated, 47 to 46, after a lengthy filibuster by pro-abortion senators. Hatch withdrew his constitutional amendment, conceding he lacked the votes for passage.
The Helms bill and Hatch amendment are expected to resurface this year. In addition, Hyde has introduced a "Respect Human Life Act" that would permanently ban the use of federal funds for abortion. It was endorsed Friday by President Reagan.
Meanwhile, abortion proponents, the "pro-choice" forces, belatedly rallied, led by women's groups, which consider abortion one of their most important issues. They claim to have gained 25 more House supporters in the 1982 congressional elections; they lost two in the Senate.
"It is clear that the balance of power has shifted significantly in just the past two years," Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told a news conference last week. "The momentum is now on the side of the majority of Americans who would like to see the abortion issue depoliticized."
Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), leader of pro-abortion forces in the Senate, uses the same refrain, telling groups: "This Congress is the last great battle 'right to life' can wage on this issue."
Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee, dismisses such talk as "whistling in the dark."
"Abortion was extremely controversial when the court made its decision. Now it is immensely more so," he said. "It will not go away. We are growing stronger each year." The Court
Justice Blackmun was considered a moderate member of the Supreme Court in 1973, one who kept a low profile. He wanted to write the opinion in Roe v. Wade in part because he felt that, if it were done by one of his liberal colleagues such as Justice William O. Douglas, the result would cause a furor.
Blackmun wrote the opinion, based on words from the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution: "Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Liberty, he wrote, includes a right to privacy, which protects the abortion decision from state intrusion.
Roe v. Wade became one of the most controversial opinions ever issued by the court. Blackmun was called a "Pontius Pilate" and a "butcher" by anti-abortionists.
Law journals accused him of creating a new constitutional right out of whole cloth and engaging in an unprecedented usurpation of legislative power. Roe v. Wade was ridiculed as more of a treatise on medicine, ethics and philosophy, more a piece of legislation than a legal opinion. Four of its 50 pages dealt with constitutional arguments. Twenty-two pages covered the history of abortion from ancient Greece to modern Texas.
The most celebrated legal critique of Blackmun's opinion came from John Hart Ely, a prominent scholar who said he would vote for a bill legalizing abortions, but wrote in the Yale Law Journal that Blackmun's ruling was "frightening . . . It is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be." The court "simply announces" a right to an abortion, he said.
Even lawyers who sought the ruling were surprised by its sweep. To this day, many who fully approve of the result seem uncomfortable when asked to defend the way Blackmun achieved it.
"Freedom of choice concerning abortion must be a personal liberty," said Susan Frelich Appleton, a professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis and coauthor of a recent Supreme Court "friend of the court" brief on behalf of 85 law professors attacking restrictions on abortion. "Whether or not to obtain an abortion is such an intimate and sensitive decision. The state cannot make that decision for the individual," she said.
But critics of the court's approach, Appleton said, "have made a respectable and somewhat persuasive argument, and I'm willing to concede that the matter is fraught with difficulty. Many have reservations about the court's identifying rights not clearly embraced in the Constitution."
"That's what makes the ruling really extraordinary," said Robert A. Destro, a Catholic University Law School professor and prominent anti-abortion lawyer. "You'd be pretty hard-pressed to find another situation where you have a body of scholars saying they agree with the result but really don't like how the court got there."
For all the criticism, the court has never retreated from its basic principle: that the right to privacy protects the right to an abortion. Law professors on both sides of the issue say their students appear to be "very supportive of the decision," in Destro's words. "It makes very little difference where you teach. That's part and parcel of the law student's general respect for the Supreme Court."
The principles are now being extended far beyond the subject of abortion. A Michigan couple, for example, is currently using Roe v. Wade to challenge a state law banning money payments to "surrogate" mothers who allow themselves to be artificially inseminated.
At least 460 federal court opinions unrelated to abortion and pregnancy have cited Roe v. Wade as support since 1973. A new field of law concerning "reproductive rights" has flourished. It has focused, for example, on "wrongful birth" suits involving ineffective sterilization or on controversies such as one last year in Bloomington, Ind., over whether parents have the right to allow the death of newborns with serious birth defects.
The ruling "has played a very important role in the right of privacy and popularized the concept that under our Constitution, people should be allowed to lead their personal lives without interference from the state," said Harriet F. Pilpel, general counsel for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Previous court rulings had established a right to privacy, although none is explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Blackmun extended it to abortion in a now famous line, saying the right "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."
Anti-abortion lawyers focus their most bitter attacks on another part of the ruling. The court weighed the rights of the woman and the rights of the state but not any right of the fetus, because Blackmun said no consensus existed on when life begins.
"The court felt it didn't need to decide when life begins," Destro said. "It said the question was irrelevant. That was worse than saying life started at birth."
The court said that at the early stages of pregnancy, when abortions are safest, the woman's right to privacy totally protects the abortion decision from state regulation. As the fetus develops and abortion becomes less safe, the state gains an increasing right to protect the woman's health.
In the final stages of pregnancy, when the health risk is greatest for the woman, the state may have the authority to ban abortion "except where it is necessary . . . for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."
No serious court challenges to the core of Blackmun's decision have been mounted. The cases have moved only around its fringes, as legislatures and city councils began placing obstacles between the woman and the right guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that these obstacles may not include parental or spousal veto power over the woman's decision.
In 1977, the court upheld denial of state funds for elective abortions for poor women and, in 1980, a similar provision involving federal Medicaid funds. Also in 1980, the court approved a Utah law requiring doctors to notify parents of "unemancipated" teen-agers before giving them an abortion.
Abortion restrictions from three jurisdictions are under review in the court's most wide-ranging examination of the issue since Roe v. Wade.
Of the three, an Akron, Ohio, ordinance comes closest to challenging Blackmun's central holding by imposing restrictions during the first trimester of pregnancy. Among other things, the Akron law requires a 24-hour waiting period for abortions and an elaborate "informed consent" procedure in which the doctor must tell women that "the unborn child is a human life from the moment of conception." The Safety
Legalization of abortion a decade ago transformed a dangerous, clandestine and often criminal operation into one of the nation's most common surgical procedures.
This move into the mainstream of U.S. medicine launched a revolution in women's health care, giving women virtually complete choice for the first time in the nation's history as to when--or whether--they will have children.
Contraceptives began the revolution, and the highly effective birth control pill speeded it, but contraception is neither always reliable nor reliably used. One study found that contraception failures accounted for more than half of the 3.1 million unintended pregnancies in 1978.
Abortions have become far more common than health experts predicted when the procedure was legalized. Each year in the District of Columbia, there are more abortions than live births.
Abortion supporters worry about this. "I believe women ought to have the chance to control their reproduction, but I feel sad that 60 percent of those who get abortions hadn't used any contraception at the time they got pregnant," said Luella Klein, an Atlanta physician and vice president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Availability of abortion has brought another revolution in parents' ability to prevent birth of some handicapped babies.
A technique called amniocentesis allows doctors to sample the cells of a fetus to see if it is affected with a serious genetic disease. A study in Hawaii found that legal abortion, particularly among older women, has led to a 40 percent decline in the number of cases of Down's syndrome, a condition associated with mental retardation and detectable by amniocentesis.
Anti-abortion forces claim that such selectivity is the first step toward infanticide. But, Dr. David A. Grimes of the federal Centers for Disease Control contended, it has "allowed families to undertake pregnancies they would not have considered or to continue pregnancies they would have terminated."
Studies by the government and the Alan Guttmacher Institute document the 10-year experience with legalized abortion.
It has reduced the overall chance of death from abortion to the point that it is now considered, in the first three months, at least seven times safer than pregnancy and childbirth, having about the same risk of death as a shot of penicillin, according to Grimes.
This was not always the case. In 1965, when most abortions were illegal, between 200,000 and 1.2 million women--estimates vary wildly--received them anyway, and 235 deaths, or 20 percent of U.S. deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth, were attributed to illegal abortions.
Advances in medical care, contraception and legal abortion caused the figure to drop to under 5 percent by the late 1970s. The government reported 20 deaths from legal abortions and none from illegal ones in 1979, the last year for which such figures were available.
The government says that less than 1 percent of women who undergo abortions have major complications.
Medical professionals and consumers active in the anti-abortion movement disagree. "Only a small percentage of problems ever reach a statistic," Willke maintained. He accused "abortion chambers" of underreporting abortion's negative consequences.
Abortion safety is linked to procedures used. The traditional scraping technique--known as sharp curettage--has largely been replaced by the safer suction aspiration technique in early abortions. More than 90 percent of abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when health risks are lowest.
In the second trimester, through 16 weeks, the dilatation and evacuation technique has been found safer than saline "instillation" and other techniques involving injection of a chemical into the uterus to cause labor and delivery of a dead fetus. Fewer than 5 percent of abortions are performed after 16 weeks, and studies show that abortions can be done as safely in clinics as in hospitals.
Yet, much of the medical controversy continues to focus on second-trimester abortions, with critics graphically describing a fetus' dismemberment during a D&E abortion or stillbirth of fetuses after other techniques are used. They have pushed for state laws--three of which are before the Supreme Court--requiring that abortions be performed in hospitals.
In turn, some hospital staffs have refused to do late-stage abortion procedures.
Reports of occasional live births following late-stage abortions heighten the emotional charge of the issue. Estimates suggest that perhaps several hundred occur annually, but that few survive.
The likelihood of live birth depends on the type of procedure used--it is highest with a chemical injection of prostaglandins--and the fetus' age. Underestimation of the stage of pregnancy aggravates the problem, although use of ultrasound measurements is improving the accuracy of such estimates.
At the time of Roe v. Wade, Blackmun noted that "viability," when an infant is "potentially able to live outside the mother's womb," usually begins at 28 weeks but may occur as early as 24 weeks.
Despite remarkable advances in treating premature infants, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still says there are no well-documented cases of an infant surviving after being delivered at 24 weeks or less. Long-term health risks of abortion remain unresolved.
Critics warn of an epidemic of miscarriages and premature births from the increase in abortions, particularly repeated ones. But CDC's Dr. Willard Cates and others consider the data to be preliminary and inconsistent as to risk. They say new abortion technology appears to decrease the chance of long-term ill effects.
Of greater concern to abortion foes are emotional consequences of abortion on the woman and her family. Dr. James H. Ford, a California medical adviser to the American Life Lobby, warned of a nation of "emotional cripples," with lasting guilt among women who "know they killed a child they would have had."
But proponents of abortion choice say the opposite is true. Dr. Naomi Goldstein of the American Psychiatric Association said studies show that the psychological consequences of unwanted pregnancies are far greater for parents and offspring, with greater potential for child abuse, neglect and mental illness.
In any case, added Dr. Warren Pearse, executive director of the obstetricians' professional group, "abortion has been with us a long time. It is not going away. It would be better to make abortion unnecessary through widely available family planning than to make it illegal."