Elayne Clift


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Saving the Supreme Court

Elayne Clift writes about women, health and development from Saxtons River, Vt.

5 July 2005

"It's the judiciary!  Judiciary, judiciary!"  Such was my mantra before the last election when I was teaching Women's Studies.  I couldn't impress upon my students enough the importance of the courts in a neo-conservative age.  And not just the Supreme Court, which only hears several hundred cases a year.  Far more important are federal court appointments, where thousands of cases are heard annually.

Now, with the White House poised to lean considerably to the right in filling Sandra Day O'Connor's seat, I bet there isn't a person who took my class who isn't thinking about what I said.  Like me, they must be shuddering at the possibility of a Rhenquist resignation as well.

There are so many deeply important issues at stake if the Supreme Court becomes unbalanced in its interpretation of the Constitution.  None of these is more urgent than a woman's right to privacy in her reproductive life.  Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, or litigated away issue by issue, the repercussions for American woman are profound.

Let's be clear:  Abortion will never disappear.  It will only go underground, again. We all know this.  And in the absence of safe, legal abortion, many thousands of women's lives will be at risk. Here are some facts provided by The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a respected non-profit research organization in Washington, DC whose data
is undisputed by either side of the debate:  Nearly 50 percent of pregnancies annually in the U.S. are unintended.  Of the approximately three million unintended pregnancies a year, 47 percent are terminated by abortion.  In 2000, there were 1.31 million abortions in the U.S. Approximately 10 to 15,000 of them were done, as they are every year, to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Still, the annual rate of abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age has dropped significantly since 1980, thanks to better contraceptive use and better sex education.

When women make the always overwhelmingly difficult decision to abort a pregnancy, they do so for wrenching economic or personal reasons.  As Carol Gilligan's research in the 1980s showed, women make their abortion decisions with others in mind - other children, a spouse or partner, or someone else with whom they have a close connection. Further, "women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care."

Women seek abortions for a variety of reasons.  They are too poor to raise a(nother) child, they do not want to bear a child conceived in violence, they lack the maturity or the physical or emotional strength to cope with a pregnancy, they fear the reaction of
their partner or parent, there are medical reasons.  Whatever leads to the decision, it is always heart-wrenching, personal, and private.

What is the reality of an unwanted pregnancy?  Listen to the voices of real women, drawn from the 1992 edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves”:

 "When I was 15 and pregnant, I was denied any choice.  I had a baby that I gave up for adoption. ... I became an ob-gyn and I do abortions now because I am totally committed to making sure that other women have the options I didn't have."

"They don't seem to get it.  For poor women, abortion is a matter of survival.  If I have one more child, it etches away my margin of survival."

"It is not easy for black women to have abortions.  But we have spoken silently with our actions, having abortions at twice the rate of white women... and without community support because of the conspiracy of silence surrounding abortion.  We need to start telling our stories about how illegal abortions killed our mothers and how legal abortion saved our lives."

"I am a 15 year old Latina woman. ...I didn't really have a choice [about abortion].  I couldn't tell my mother.  She would have put me out.  I did not have the money to bring a child into this world.  I know what I did was right.  But after the abortion I wept tears of sadness...."

Sandra Day O'Connor has been a critical and balanced voice against hard-right extremism on the Supreme Court.  Now, whether the issue is abortion rights, affirmative action, housing discrimination or environmental protection, it is absolutely crucial that the judge who replaces her be prepared to preserve our essential rights.  As the National Organization for Women points out, "Now is not the time to play favorites.  It's the supreme moment to play fair."

The record of anyone nominated by the president to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court must be closely scrutinized by the U.S. Senate to ensure their ability to separate their own political ideology from their responsibility to fairly interpret the law.  Whoever sits on the highest court in the land must uphold democracy's promise to protect the civil liberties of all Americans.

I hope everyone, not only my students, understand what's at stake.