As the Supreme Court heard arguments this past week over rolling back abortion rights, I recalled some earlier episodes from back in the days when I was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer‘s D.C. correspondent. One was when the Court had heard arguments in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood in 1992, when many were speculating that the high court would deliver a decision to overturn the right to undergo an abortion established 19 years earlier in Roe v. Wade.
Pro-choice forces marshalled a big show of support in Washington, D.C., starting with a Sunday reception/brunch on Capitol Hill. I learned a big contingent had crossed the country from Washington state, so I headed over from the Metro stop at Union Station. On the way, I ran into Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and wife Marcelle, who were reception-bound after attending mass at St. Joseph’s Church on the Hill.
I learned that folks willing to travel 2,500 miles to jointly voice their convictions had compelling reasons to make the trip. A contingent from the University of Washington’s B’nai B’rith student chapter came back when Mikhail Gorbachev was in town. They were joining a rally for Soviet Jews and had adopted the cause of a young concert pianist from Kharkov. He had been booted from the conservatory and could not even work as a page turner after applying to emigrate to Israel. The pianist was freed from the grip of Ukraine party boss Vladimir Shcherbitsky a few months later, and gleeful phone calls from Seattle told me he was Israel bound.
What set apart the Casey protest from others, however, was that some in the crowd were oblivious to the urgency of the cause. The Washington contingent at the D.C. reception was made up of middle-aged women and their teen and college-aged daughters. The mothers had lived as young adults in a country where abortion was illegal. Their offspring had grown up in a post-Roe era where abortion was legal.
Abortion was, for these daughters, a right taken for granted, so the parents were on an educational mission. For a pair of the mothers I spoke with, it was painful and personal. They had found themselves expecting unexpectedly, before Washington voters legalized abortion and prior to the Roe ruling. Each underwent a period of fear before a physician was found to terminate the pregnancy. Both were middle class and spared the back alley, and they soon became part of the 1970 campaign for legalization.
They were trying to impress upon daughters that a basic right of women was in danger of being taken away. If that happened, it would directly impact their life choices. At least five mother-daughter teams found their way to U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, D-Wash. I watched as she tried to convey the vital role of choice in a woman’s life and determining her future life. We can’t let this be taken away, Rep. Unsoeld counseled. (Unsoeld would later write in her autobiography of having to travel to Japan for an abortion when it was illegal here. Rep. Pramila Jayapal penned a New York Times op-ed last June on terminating a pregnancy for health reasons in legal circumstances.)
The daughters found Jolene’s warning disquieting but weren’t immediately made into activists. Parental units were still driving home the message – “This is something you must be concerned about” — as they hailed cabs for an afternoon of pre-rally sightseeing. Next day, they were part of a show of strength that surprised even rally organizers. For once at a D.C. event, Rev. Jessie Jackson did not have to inflate the crowd size.
In Casey, the Supreme Court sustained the “essential holding” of Roe protecting a woman’s right to choose but also sustained several of the Pennsylvania restrictions that had been challenged by Planned Parenthood. The pro-choice vote was a near thing. Four of the nine justices wrote or signed onto opinions that Roe should have been overturned. The work of a moderate trio – Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter – crafted the opinion that saved Roe.
That decades-ago experience has stayed with me, a distant mirror on what Americans may or may not realize when the Supremes rule in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi case. The big change today, the Court no longer has O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy to craft a wise ruling. Roe is on the ropes. How come? Like those teenagers nearly 30 years ago, choice has been a right taken for granted, and supported by the public. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that a 60-27 percent majority of Americans favor keeping Roe v. Wade in place. Three quarters of those surveyed said decisions on pregnancy belong to women and their physicians, and not the state.
But intensity has been on the other side. It has turned the Republican Party around from the day when GOP moderates spearheaded legalization of abortion in Washington. Nowadays, Washington state’s three Republican members of Congress have signed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to throw out Roe v. Wade and send decisions on abortion back to the states. Donald Trump gained religious conservative votes in 2016 with a promise to appoint anti-Roe judges.
The worry for defenders of choice is the same as that of the Washington mothers who brought daughters to that D.C. rally 30 years ago. Are Americans ready to have a right taken away? Or to have restrictions preventing women from exercising that right in half the country? Will Americans use the political process to defend that right?