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The chipping away of abortion rights

January 27, 2006 | Page 3

WITH THE confirmation of George Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito all but certain, liberal supporters of a women's right to choose were mourning the looming departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

But last week, in what will likely be her last Supreme Court opinion, O'Connor showed why she shouldn't be remembered as a defender of the right to choose. What she demonstrated was her willingness to justify the right wing's strategy of chipping away at abortion rights with one restriction after another--while maintaining formally legal abortion.

O'Connor wrote the opinion in the Court's unanimous decision to return a case involving a parental consent law to a lower court that overturned it. The justices agreed with the lower court that the law was unconstitutional because it didn't include a provision for "significant health risks" to the woman. But the Court didn't leave the law struck down. Instead, it ordered the lower court to make a more limited ruling.

The New Hampshire law requires that before a doctor can perform an abortion on a woman under 18 years old, a parent must be notified, followed by a 48-hour waiting period.

In her opinion explaining the Court's unanimous ruling, O'Connor objected to the lack of an exception for the woman's health, but she accepted the other restrictions.

"First," O'Connor wrote, "States unquestionably have the right to require parental involvement when a minor considers terminating her pregnancy." She also took issue with the lower court's decision to strike down the law entirely, calling this a "most blunt remedy."

This is in keeping with O'Connor's record--of being the "swing justice" when the question of overturning legal abortion altogether came up, but joining the right-wing majority in supporting every conceivable restriction on abortion.

Right-wingers hailed the decision. "This is a great victory for the future of parental notification laws," said Tony Perkins, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council. "This ruling is encouraging and gives great momentum to other states looking to protect parental rights and safeguard the health of underage girls."

But the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood Federation of America also hailed it. "We are relieved that the Supreme Court left in place protections for women's health and safety in abortion laws," said Planned Parenthood Interim President Karen Pearl.

Actually, what this decision--and the reaction to it--shows is just how far rightward the debate over women's right to choose has swung.

In the face of the Religious Right's crusade to demonize abortion, the liberal response has been to retreat. Instead of championing a woman's right to control her own body, Democratic Party leaders like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean talk about keeping abortions rare.

And when anti-choice politicians push through state-level laws that carve away at abortion rights--so-called "partial birth" bans, parental consent laws and mandatory waiting periods--the Democrats go along with that, too.

This explains why congressional Democrats aren't waging a real fight against super-conservative Samuel Alito--the anti-abortion right winger who will be ruling on parental consent and the futures of millions of teenage girls the next time the issue comes up in the Court.

With her latest decision, O'Connor is passing the torch.

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