WASHINGTON — In 1846, a few blocks south of Greenwich Village in Manhattan, a British immigrant hung out her shingle: "Madame Restell's experience and knowledge in the treatment of cases of female irregularity is such as to require but a few days to effect a perfect cure. . . . Ladies will be accommodated with private and acceptable board."
A century later, the "female irregularity" would more commonly be called pregnancy, and Madame Restell's specialty would be known as abortion.
Although abortion was illegal, Madame Restell and other practitioners flourished because women's desire to end unwanted pregnancies overcame legal prohibitions and social censure, as well as horrifically unsafe conditions.
On Jan. 22, 1973, 127 years after Madame Restell went into business, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized her occupation in its 5-4 decision in Roe vs. Wade. Far from settling the issue, however, the Roe ruling propelled the abortion debate beyond the fine points of legal briefs and into the murky and painful arena of individual morality.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 23, 1998 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Abortion ruling--A story in Thursday's Life & Style on the 25th anniversary of the legalization of abortion incorrectly reported the U.S. Supreme Court vote in Roe vs. Wade. It was 7 to 2.
Within a few years, the country plunged into an increasingly violent and divisive public battle over women's rights versus those of the unborn. On the 25th anniversary of the Roe decision, abortion--while one of the nation's most common surgical procedures--is still on the margins of medical practice.
It occupies a similar no man's land in the American psyche. Although more than one pregnancy in four is terminated by abortion, the decision rarely comes easily--and often creates profound anxiety.
Paradoxes abound. Polls show that while a strong majority of Americans believe the decision should be left to the woman and her doctor, nearly half regard abortion as murder. A substantial slice of the American public--even including many of those who have had an abortion--believe a bit of both.
"I just feel guilty," said Ginny, a 19-year-old from Houston who recently went to a Planned Parenthood clinic for an abortion. "I see so many children walking around; all I see now are babies, and it's really hard.
"I felt like I wanted to keep it, but I know I can't because of the facts of life. My boyfriend didn't have a stable job, and I'm working and going to school. It's really hard to go through [an abortion] because of God. He's watching me and I feel like I'm doing something wrong, but I also feel that God can forgive me for this decision, because I'm only doing it for the good and not the bad."
Ginny is one of an estimated 300,000 American teenagers who will have an abortion this year, and she chose to have hers in the sixth week of pregnancy. These numbers have been largely unchanged for nearly a decade: About 20% of abortions are obtained by women 19 and younger and 89% occur in the first three months of pregnancy.
But much else has changed since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion. The number of abortions rose sharply in the years after the ruling. With unplanned pregnancies now 16% below their 1987 peak, abortions are also falling, from 1.6 million in 1990 to about 1.4 million.
As the practice of abortion rose, so did violent opposition--bombings, arson, clinic blockades and even murder. Not entirely coincidentally, the number of doctors providing abortions dropped.
Despite that, abortion technology has become more sophisticated over the last 25 years, making the procedure available earlier in pregnancy. Although the public debate focuses on late-term abortions, when the procedure is the most morally troubling and gruesome, only about 1% are performed after 20 weeks or more of gestation.
Seventeen states have banned "partial-birth" abortions--those that involve partial vaginal delivery of a living fetus before the fetus is killed--except in cases when the woman would otherwise die. Courts have partially or fully blocked enforcement of the bans in all 11 states where they have ruled.
But the courts, after striking down virtually all restrictions on abortion for the first 15 years after Roe, have begun upholding some limits. Eleven states require women to wait 24 hours between entering a clinic and having an abortion; 31 states require teenagers seeking abortions to involve their parents in the decision. California imposes no restrictions.
Nonetheless, the fundamental right to an abortion at any stage of pregnancy remains intact, and legal experts foresee no change. Most recently, the Supreme Court, in its 1992 ruling in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, reaffirmed that right in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy, although it permitted limitations that did not impose "an undue burden."
Under both Roe and Casey, the states may ban third-trimester abortions, but must include exceptions when the mother's life or health is threatened.