So the new Supreme Court, featuring newly minted Bush appointees Samuel Alito and John Roberts (both presumed to be way anti-abortion despite confirmation-hearing testimony that complicates that), will hear a case about "partial-birth abortion," Gonzales vs. Carhart.
The case…involves a law approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in 2003 making it a crime for doctors to perform the procedure known medically as intact dilation and extraction. The procedure, which Bush called an "abhorrent practice," involves partial removal of the fetus from the womb and a puncturing of the skull, and is used to terminate pregnancies in the second and third trimesters.
Doctors who perform the procedure contend that it is the safest method of abortion when the mother's health is threatened by heart disease, high blood pressure or cancer.
More here. Slate's Will Saletan notes that the ban–which has been sidelined by court action so far–affects at most 2,000 to 5,000 cases a year and even if enacted would save no fetuses/babies. Why? The law "doesn't ban abortions beyond a stage of pregnancy; it just regulates the methods by which they're done." More on that here.
Another abortion-related showdown is brewing in South Dakota, whose legislature has passed a measure that "would ban abortion in virtually all cases, punishing doctors who perform one with a $5,000 fine and five years in prison." South Dakota's Republican Gov. Mike Rounds is expected to sign the bill into law. Some context: South Dakota, which went heavily for Bush in 2004, has only one abortion clinic, which performs about 800 abortions a year (though it's not clear how many more are perfomed in doctor's offices and elsewhere). More here.
This is all just in time for the midterm elections, which means plenty of press, of course. I'm not convinced that abortion rights–whether you're for them or against them–is that central for most voters (though it is clearly central to the voting patterns of a small but intense set of voters, some of whom will never vote for a candidate based on the abortion question). I also doubt that, whatever the outcome of these two developments, much will change regarding the availability of legal abortion.
In January, Reason's Jeff Taylor argued that "post-Alito, the [abortion] issue may recede on the national stage."
And writing on the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Ronald Bailey noted that the number of abortions is down from the 1990s and that the overwhelming majority of abortions take place in the first trimester of pregancy. He concluded:
Because most Americans remain ambiguously uncomfortable with abortion, our political institutions will fitfully continue to try to narrow the scope of the decision. Nevertheless, the central holding that a woman can choose abortion in the first three months of a pregnancy will not be overturned.
More on that here.
And back on Roe's 30th anniversary, I wrote:
This isn't to say the debate about abortion is "over"–or that laws governing the specifics of abortion won't continue to change over time in ways that bother ardent pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike. But taking a longer view, it does seem as if the extremes of the abortion debate–extremes that included incendiary language (including calls for the murder of abortion providers)–have largely subsided in the wake of a widely accepted consensus. Part of this is surely due to the massive increases in reproduction technologies that allow women far more control over all aspects of their bodies (even as some of those technologies challenge conventional definitions of human life)….
Regardless of whether Roe withstands possible legal scrutiny, regardless of whether George W. Bush gets to pick several new Supreme Court members, and regardless of whether Congress wants to severely restrict abortion rights, the mass public consensus in favor of the status quo virtually guarantees very little substantial change in any direction.
More here. We'll see if Jeff, Ron, and I are on target or not.