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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 4. 21st March 1973

Abortion & the US Supreme Court

Abortion & the US Supreme Court

Dear Sir,

The comments on the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on abortion in "Up From Under" (March 7 Salient) are misleading. The decisions legalize abortion "on demand" for six months of pregnancy throughout the U.S. It would be inaccurate to characterize the decisions as providing the states with an "escape hatch" for "reactionary" purposes. The sweeping character of the Court's decisions was designed to terminate litigation on this matter. The court does not wish to deal with the divisive, emotion-laden issue of abortion again. The decisions therefore are not intended to produce evasive legislation which would again be subject to legal challenge.

"Up From Under" notes that the right to abortion can now be exercised (under the Court's rulings) under "medically safe conditions". This consideration, a protective one, involves state intervention; an unqualified individual cannot terminate pregnancies without incurring criminal penalties, nor can inadequate facilities be utilized for these purposes. An individual who misled women about qualifications to conduct abortions would be in violation of the laws; caveat emptor and laissez faire are principles without application to the consumption of medical practice. The Supreme Court has granted to women the absolute right to abortions through the first six months of pregnancy. The States' intervention is limited solely to ensuring that medically safe conditions prevail, particularly during the middle trimester of pregnancy. Moreover, the decisions clearly obligate states to ensure that requests for abortion are met expeditiously since delay can alter the legal status of the women involved. It is likely that requests for abortions in the U.S. will be dealt with on a fairer, more closely supervised, more equal basis than any other matter involving medical care.

The opportunities available to women for early, safe abortions render unlikely requests for abortions beyond six months. The Court's decisions do not explicitly authorize the arbitrary prohibition of abortions during the final trimester; the judgements appear to anticipate that state statutes governing this period will erect safeguards around abortions carried out for medical reasons. The Court does not expect non-medically motivated abortions to be performed during these final three months. Few women would decide in their seventh, eighth, or ninth month to undergo an abortion, when safe, legal opportunities were available for the previous six months. The Court argued, however, that the foetus was viable at this point; consequently, a right to "potential life" becomes more real, and a decision to terminate pregnancy must hence be less casual, more restricted. This sensitivity to the unborn's life, resting on medical evidence and a controlled ethical sense, does not weaken the decisions, nor does it warrant a crusade.

The Court's rulings - which summary violates perhaps more than it elucidates — deal carefully, at great length, with the medical, legal, religious, historical, and ethical arguments and perspectives surrounding this important, fundamental problem. Those concerned with the complexities of abortion law reform should consult the Supreme Court's decisions (Doe et al v, Bolton, Attny-Gen. of G.A., et al; Roe et al v. Wade, D.A. of Dallas County; 22/1/73).

A less emotional approach to this issue in New Zealand, which would transcend the present repetitive debate, might centre on recommending to M.P's a careful reading of the Court's opinions. Their application to New Zealand would liberate mothers and fathers from the suffering involved in the trap of unwanted pregnancies, while ensuring that unborn children are not aborted arbitrarily or casually when capable of external life.

Dr Stephen Levine,

Lecturer in Political Science.