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South Dakota vs. Roe

March 08, 2006

SURVEYS ROUTINELY FIND THAT most Americans -- 55% to 67%, depending on the poll -- want abortion to be legal and available. Pro-choice sentiment rises as high as 75% when considering whether pregnancy would endanger the woman's health or was the result of incest or rape.

Those are numbers that all conservatives should mull as some of them cheer South Dakota's ban on all abortions except in cases where the mother's life is endangered. The law would force a woman to go through pregnancy and childbirth even if it were the result of a traumatic sexual assault or if her health would be permanently impaired.

The law is not scheduled to take effect until July, and it will doubtless be blocked for far longer as opponents challenge it, possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That, of course, is what its proponents want -- a rehearing of Roe vs. Wade. It's a one-shot legal gamble with ramifications that will reverberate beyond South Dakota.

There will almost certainly be another presidential election before this case could get to the high court, which has two new members believed to be more sympathetic to antiabortion arguments. So although one looming possibility is that abortion rights may be stripped from almost all women, another is that many voters will turn away from the Republican Party.

These voters, often economically conservative but socially liberal, have supported Republican candidates because they assumed birth-control and abortion rights were secure. Suddenly, that assumption is in question.

President Bush had the support of about a quarter of moderate and liberal independents in the last election. That was down from 38% in 2000, The Times has reported, largely because of his stance on abortion. The more this group perceives abortion rights to be threatened, the more likely it is to move away from the Republican Party -- and those rights will be more threatened in 2008 than at any point in the last 35 years. And it's not clear that even more conservative voters who favor restrictions on abortion rights -- such as banning partial-birth abortion or requiring parental consent for minors -- want to see things go as far as the South Dakota law would take them.

Bush publicly disagrees with the South Dakota law, saying he favors abortion rights in cases of rape or incest (although not necessarily to protect a woman's health). But his recent Supreme Court appointments have certainly made opponents of abortion rights more audacious, if not more hopeful. At this point, it's unlikely that he or his party will be able to distance themselves from this mangled bit of lawmaking -- disastrous in both its intent and its potential political fallout.

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