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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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The Legacy of Roe: The Debate Continues

The 1973 Roe decision did not end the debate over abortion.  In many ways, the decision actually intensified the debate, making it a national issue rather than a state issue.  Abortion is an extremely controversial issue that involves people’s strongly held beliefs about religion, morality, life, the role of the government, and the right to bodily integrity and privacy.  Each year, on the anniversary of the decision (January 22, 1973), pro-life and pro-choice supporters stage protest rallies in front of the Supreme Court.

Abortion has become an important issue in elections and in judicial nominations.  Depending on who is president and which party controls Congress, abortion counseling at federally funded clinics has sometimes been permitted and sometimes been prohibited.  In congressional districts and U.S. Senate elections where the public is closely divided on this issue, candidates are often reluctant to take a strong stand either for or against abortion rights for fear of alienating an important segment of voters.  And as long as the public believes that the U.S. Supreme Court is closely divided over abortion issues, advocacy groups on both sides will closely monitor presidential nominations to the Supreme Court and even to lower federal courts.

In addition to political arenas, confrontations over abortions take place on a regular basis in many communities outside of clinics that offer abortion services.  Those who are against abortion often stage protests outside of clinics and those who support abortion rights volunteer to escort patients who might otherwise be discouraged from entering the clinics as a result of protests.  Some extreme opponents of abortion feel so strongly that abortion is wrong that they advocate the killing of doctors who perform abortions.  On the other side, some advocates of abortion rights argue that abortion opponents who threaten women or their doctors should be treated like terrorists because they advocate violence and attempt to intimidate people from exercising their constitutional rights.   

Questions to Consider
  1. In your own words, why do you believe that abortion is such a controversial issue?
  2. More than 30 years after Roe v. Wade, some argue that this case should not have been decided by the Court and that the decision belongs in state legislatures.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of this state-by-state legislative approach?
  3. No case in recent constitutional history has stirred deeper emotions than Roe v. Wade. Organizations have been founded with the primary purpose of either protecting the judicially created right to an abortion or seeking to have this right overturned.  Using the internet, find one organization on each side of this debate and explain its mission.  A list of web sites can be found in Public Agenda’s Issue Guide.
  4. When people feel strongly on both sides of such an important issue, can a compromise be reached?  Are there are ways to lessen the hostilities between the two sides?

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