As long as Roe v. Wade remains intact, the election of pro life candidates has had little impact on a woman's right to choose. The pro lifers have been successful in several attempts to impose mostly symbolic restrictions on the procedure, but the fundamental right has remained intact as the Supreme Court has time after time turned back attempts to overturn the 1973 decision. With the replacement of a pro choice justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, with a pro life justice, Samuel Alito, and the appointment of John Roberts as Chief Justice, who is also pro life, the long-standing validity of Roe v. Wade has never seemed more uncertain.
The pro life movement clearly believes it now has a majority of justices on the court to overturn the decision. If that happens, each state legislature will become a battleground between pro life and pro choice forces to determine the fate of each state's law on abortion. States like South Dakota are already jumping the gun, having enacted this year a law which would outlaw all abortions, including rape and incest. Mississippi's legislature is moving a similar bill which Gov. Haley Barbour says he'll sign.
Indiana's pro life forces probably have the votes to pass a similar ban here, although the legislature passed on a legislative attempt by Rep. Troy Woodruff (R-Vincennes) to outlaw abortions. Instead, the legislature has been tinkering with efforts to further regulate abortion clinics and require additional disclosures to women seeking an abortion, such as when life begins and how the fetus may feel pain as a result of the procedure.
So this is what the Republican Party has been wishing for all these years. Or is it? A report by Newsweek suggests party leaders are realing concerned now that the pro life movement is on a roll. After South Dakota enacted its ban, Newsweek contacted GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman to get his reaction. He told the magazine he had nothing to say about it, and that he did not intend to make any statement on it during his speech at a big Republican gathering in Memphis, Tennessee. Newsweek describes the new-found Republican dilemma:
Why such reticence to embrace glad tidings? After all, the abortion issue has been good to the Republican Party. It has energized Roman Catholic and evangelical grass-roots activists and allowed the GOP to paint pro-choice Democrats as cultural extremists, out of step with Main Street and the heartland. But a recent flurry of activity on abortion is making Republican politicians nervous. With states moving to restrict abortion and the Supreme Court drawing closer to the day when it might actually reverse Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion, GOP leaders see big political risks.
They may be in the awkward position of getting more than they asked for. The South Dakota law, for instance, would allow abortions only to save the life of the mother, not in cases of rape or incest. That is further than most Americans want to go. By a roughly two-to-one margin, polls show, people want to uphold the basic abortion right enshrined in Roe v. Wade, even if they approve of some restrictions, like parental notification. "I'm pro-life, but you can't wear the thing out," says Clarke Reed, the legendary architect of the GOP in Mississippi. "I'm worried about it." With reason: his own state legislature is moving in a direction similar to South Dakota's.
Interestingly, Newsweek reports that some of the party's most conservative members are not embracing the recent pro life efforts. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) warns, "It could backfire." Sen. George Allen (R-VA), who is running for president, said he wouldn't have signed a bill like South Dakota's had it arrived on his desk when he was governor of Virginia. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) initially let it be known that he would have signed the South Dakota law, but in Memphis this weekend he was "uncharacteristically muted" when he was asked if the South Dakota action might cause problems for the party in this year's election.
The truth is, if this issue has to be fought state by state, it will prove disastrous for the Republican Party. As the reality that the right to an abortion may no longer remain inviolate begins to sink in, the pro choice voters will become increasingly activated to take action the same way pro life voters have been for the past quarter century. That will become the decisive issue in many close elections. If the polls are correct in the view that Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade by a 2-1 margin, the GOP had better hope that the Supreme Court leaves the decision alone. Otherwise, it might just get what it has wished for all these years.