For almost 16 years, legalized abortion has been the law of the land, established by the Supreme Court in a case known as Roe vs. Wade.
That decision's principle--abortion on demand in the first six months of pregnancy--has withstood bombing of abortion clinics and verbal bombasts from those who call abortion murder.
But some suspect the principle may not last much longer than the next round of appointments to the Supreme Court, especially if any of the elderly justices who have voted for abortion on demand die or retire and are replaced by a President strongly opposed to it.
In the first presidential debate this year, Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis disagreed squarely on the issue: Dukakis said he personally opposes abortion but believes the choice should be left to the woman. Bush said he opposes legal abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or to save the mother's life, and added: "I oppose abortion and I favor adoption . . . let (these children) come to birth and then put them in a family where they'll be loved."
Abortion versus adoption. What is the reality? Would there be homes in Los Angeles County waiting for those children? What might be the impact on the county's adoptions system, which since 1973 has shifted its focus to the needs of "unadoptables?"
What would be the effects on medical care and other public social support systems if abortions were no longer legal? What would be the fate of "drug babies," AIDS babies and others born afflicted? Does society need to revise its attitudes toward women who place children for adoption?
Most answers are, at best, educated speculation--and enormously contentious.
Pro-choice advocates do a slow burn over what Carol Downer, founder of the Feminist Women's Health Center in Los Angeles and executive director of the national Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers, calls Bush's "Marie Antoinette, let-them-eat-cake" approach to dealing with unplanned pregnancies.
"If George Bush were willing to make a society where a woman could assure her child of what it needed without having to be dependent on a man, or without having to interfere with her education or without having to destroy her career . . . he and I wouldn't have much disagreement," Downer said. "And, believe me, we would reduce abortion considerably."
Right-to-life proponents take an equally outraged stance: Abortion is murder, they contend, and a society that condones killing a fetus is sick.
"It's really a sad commentary when we take our unadoptables and murder them," said Susan Carpenter-McMillan, president of the Right to Life League of Southern California and of the national Feminists for Life. "You might as well go into all the old folks homes, all the hospitals where people are unwanted, all the prisons, and take a gun and shoot them."
She is irate that "it always gets down to money. We live in the wealthiest country in the world. All we have to do is cut back on our defense and we'll have a lot of money for unwanted human beings."
About 1.5 million abortions are performed each year in the United States, the National Abortion Rights Action League reports. In some people's vision of an ideal world, these children would be born and swiftly find homes with some of the 2 million American families waiting to adopt.
But the reality, said Mollie Cooper, chief of the adoptions division of the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services, is that the vast majority of the 1,000 or so youngsters now awaiting adoption through the county are "not the most easily adoptable children."
The demand is for infants, especially white babies. In the early 1970s, before abortion was legal, the county was placing 200 to 250 infants for adoption monthly. Now, Cooper said, "our department probably does not place more than 20 to 30 newborns a year."
The agency now functions primarily for "special needs children" who because of their age, race or physical or mental handicaps are hard to place, she explained.
Increasingly, they have been physically or sexually abused or they carry the scars of their mothers' drug addiction.
If Roe vs. Wade were overturned and a bounty of healthy white babies resulted, Cooper wants to be sure that the "older children would not suffer"--that more money and staff would be provided to continue time-intensive services to them.
The statisticians can deduce which women choose legal abortion. But statistics do not tell which women would opt for illegal abortions, which would have their babies and keep them, which would place them for adoption.
Two new extensive surveys by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a private New York foundation that studies family planning issues, indicate that young, poor, black unmarried women are the most likely to have abortions.