If last year's Supreme Court decision on abortion set off a tidal wave of political activity, yesterday's court rulings on parental notification may do little more than keep the ripples moving.
Behind the prepared statements issued by activists on both sides of the debate was a recognition that the issues involved in yesterday's rulings -- the intersection of abortion rights, parental rights and minors' rights -- carry less political punch than the overall threat to abortion rights that was seen in last year's decision giving states authority to restrict abortions.
"I don't think it will have nearly the same impact," said Gary Bauer, a former White House adviser who is now president of the Family Research Council.
The decisions on parental notification are likely to spur additional activity in state legislatures next year as abortion opponents continue their efforts to enact additional restrictions.
But those decisions, which reflect a broad public consensus on the parental notification issue, will be difficult to convert into quick political gains this fall. According to public opinion polls, up to 80 percent of Americans support some form of parental notification.
"It's probably no runs, no hits, no errors," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster who has advised the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). "It's unclear how anyone gets any leverage on a ruling like this. . . . I don't see any 30-second commercials coming out of this decision."
Activists on both sides of the debate moved quickly yesterday to put their spin on events. Abortion opponents praised the court's rulings. "This is an important victory for both parents and unborn children," said Dr. John C. Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee.
Burke Balch, NRL legislative director, said the rulings would not alter his organization's legislative strategy and argued that the parental notification cases "reconfirm the path the court is on, the cautious step-by-step approach that invites laws that regulate or directly prevent abortions and suggests they'll get a sympathetic hearing."
Abortion rights supporters, meanwhile, sharply attacked the rulings. "The rulings are tremendously alarming," said Kate Michelman, executive director NARAL, predicting an increase in teenage suicides, runaways and "back alley" abortions.
"The court has signaled a significant weakening in its position on legal abortion for all women," said Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. "It's a court that's willing to undermine or chip away and eviscerate the right" to abortion.
Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women, described the rulings as "a clarion call to organize the campuses and the high schools of this country" and predicted that more than teenage women will see the rulings as a threat.
But there was disagreement on whether yesterday's rulings put Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion, in jeopardy. Referring to last year's court ruling giving states the right to regulate abortion, Kitty Kolbert, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said, "If Roe was in critical condition after Webster, this moved Roe into the intensive care unit."
But Idaho state Sen. Roger Madsen (R), the chief sponsor of a sharply restrictive law designed to challenge the court to overturn Roe that was vetoed last spring by Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus (D), said he doubted the court was on the brink of such a move. "I think we're still out of business as far as a direct, frontal assault on Roe is concerned," Madsen said.
Abortion rights advocates acknowledged they have a more difficult case to make in convincing voters that yesterday's rulings represent a basic threat. "My concern is that the focus will be narrowly concentrated on the teen-parent question," Michelman said. "The broader implications of the threat to Roe v. Wade is really what's equally important." Analysts also noted that yesterday's reactions by leaders in the abortion debate were designed in part for internal consumption.
"There is an odd community of interests between the advocates and opponents of abortion," Balch said. "The advocates of abortion want to keep their troops fired up, rather than being overconfident, and prolife advocates want to continue to push for legislation that will be protective."