Abortion tumult far from over as Roe v. Wade marks its 40th year
Kate Michelman came to the abortion debate by way of what the late Supreme Court Justice Harold Blackmun called “the raw edges of human existence.”
She was a mother of three girls, ages 3, 4 and 5, when her husband left her for another woman. As she contemplated going on welfare, she learned she was pregnant. It was 1969, and Michelman, raised Catholic and living in State College, decided to seek an abortion. Doing so required her to get her husband's permission and to convince an all-male hospital board that she was unfit for the pregnancy.
During the years between her abortion and Blackmun's words — published 40 years ago Tuesday in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade — Michelman felt as if she were akin to a criminal.
When the decision legalizing abortion came down, “it was the first time I felt like I was OK,” said Michelman, now 70, whose activism in Pennsylvania for women's rights propelled her to the head of NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1985 through 2004.
What felt like a victory to Michelman turned out to be the beginning of a battle that still rages. The fight uncorked passions that put Pennsylvania in the center of the storm.
Both sides believe they are fighting for human lives.
“It is not a blob of cells. It is demonstrably a living being,” said Stephen Aden, vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based anti-abortion legal organization that blocked a Pittsburgh law restricting abortion clinic protests.
More than 60 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, a percentage that remains almost unchanged from 20 years ago, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last week.
Yet 47 percent say abortion is morally wrong, compared with 13 percent who say it's acceptable, 27 percent who say it is not a moral issue and 9 percent who think it depends on the situation.
“Americans were much more pro-choice (40 years ago), and certainly the courts were,” said Kathryn Kolbert, the Constance S. Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College.
After Roe, the Roman Catholic Church's strong presence in Pennsylvania made the state a hotbed of organized opposition, Kolbert said. The church founded groups including Pennsylvanians for Human Life, which began giving anti-abortion presentations to Rotary clubs and women's groups in 1970.
“The people who founded Pennsylvanians for Human Life saw that, with the political climate, abortion was going to be a very big issue,” executive director Martha Short said.
Abortion rights advocates pushed back. Jeanne Clark of Shadyside helped organize one of the first national women's demonstrations in support of abortion rights, a 1975 Mother's Day march past the Vatican Embassy in Washington.
Two years later, Clark became executive director of an abortion clinic in East Liberty as opposition grew violent.
Someone fired a bullet into her Mt. Washington house while her son played on the floor. A few months later, someone firebombed her back porch.
“We moved shortly after that to Shadyside,” choosing a house in a more crowded area, Clark said. Still, “for a year, I had a flat tire once a week sitting on my parking pad behind the house.”
Protesters drove a car up against the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center's door and chained themselves to its undercarriage, said Susan Frietsche, a lawyer with the Women's Law Project who represents the center in East Liberty.
“Police had to very carefully cut away the locks in a way that wouldn't set the car on fire,” Frietsche said.
Buffer zones around clinic entrances and stiffer federal penalties cut down on violence. The anti-abortion movement's most effective battles took place not in streets but in the state capital.
In 1989, Gov. Bob Casey, an anti-abortion Democrat, pushed into law restrictions that included a 24-hour waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion, parental consent for girls and spousal notification for married women. They were designed in part to force a Supreme Court challenge of Roe v. Wade, said Ernie Preate, then the state's attorney general.
“There's a consensus in this country on the right to an abortion, for better or worse,” Preate said. “The question is: How far can you limit that right? We pushed that as far as we could.”
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania sued. The Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, reaffirmed the right to an abortion but upheld most of the law's restrictions. The court struck down spousal notification.
“It really established a new set of rules about abortion, and what could be legal and what restrictions could be in place,” said Micaiah Bilger, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.
The state has stayed at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement. Americans United for Life ranked Pennsylvania's abortion laws third-strictest in the country in its annual ranking released last week.
Pennsylvania received national attention in 2011 when authorities charged Dr. Kermit Gosnell with using scissors to kill viable babies and botching abortion procedures that killed at least one woman in his Philadelphia clinic. Gruesome discoveries there prompted an overhaul of laws governing clinics.
Legislation passed that year requires abortion clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory care facilities. Seven of the state's 24 clinics since have closed, according to state records. Abortion- rights advocates say closing clinics is the law's real aim.
“When they are seeking abortions, we don't agree with that decision, but at the same time, we want their lives to be protected,” Bilger said.
The restrictions work, said Aden of the Alliance Defending Freedom. The number of freestanding abortion clinics in the United States dropped from 2,000 to 700 in 15 years, he said.
Aden's group successfully sued to block a Pittsburgh law restricting abortion protests in 2009. The law combined a 15-foot buffer around clinic entrances with an 8-foot “bubble” around anyone within 100 feet of a clinic.
Though either restriction is allowed, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that imposing both infringed on protesters' First Amendment rights.
“The most amazing thing to me about the 40th anniversary is that the abortion industry never closed the deal about the so-called fundamental right to abortion,” Aden said.
On that, at least, he and Michelman agree.
“Here I am, 40 years later, and we're still talking about this,” Michelman said. “After 40 years, I'm still worried.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.