In what ways has the debate over abortion in the United States changed since the Supreme Court Roe vs Wade decision in 1973?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In many ways, the fundamental arguments prompted by the Roe Vs. Wade decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973 have not changed. At the time, this issue was seen as a rift-maker in two worlds:  religion and money. The same is true today.

When abortion became legalized through this landmark decision, the feminist movement, just gaining real momentum in the '70s, was thrilled that women could now make legal choices about their own bodies rather than having to seek an illegal abortion or other life-threatening options. It's true that making abortion legal made getting an abortion much easier and, presumably, some women's lives were saved. It is also true that women's lives have been lost through abortions, as evidences by the recent Kermit Gosnell horrors.

The primary opposition to the ruling came from the religious community. Both the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant ministers vehemently opposed this decision, claiming that life begins at conception, and any ending of that life should be considered as infanticide or murder. The National Right to Life Committee was formed, and the battle began in earnest.

While there have been times when the mood of the country is more accepting and more critical of abortion, essentially the same battle is raging today. What has changed is what we have learned about unborn babies in the realm of science, and this does seem to be having at least some impact on the abortion debate.

If the religious views are correct, abortion is, indeed, murder. If not, there is no real reason to oppose abortion. So whether or not a fetus is a child has been the core of the debate since the beginning. What scientific advancements (through sonograms, ultrasounds, and other advancements) and medical science (through improved technology) continue to prove is that a "fetus" is a viable human being much earlier than anyone ever presumed--roughly 24 weeks into a pregnancy:

  • The child is now gaining around 3 ounces (90 grams) a week.
  • Baby weighs about 1.3 pounds and is 12 inches long.
  • Baby weighs about 600 grams and is 30cm (crown to heel) long.
  • The eyelids can be seen very clearly.
  • If born at this stage is officially considered viable, they may well be able to survive.

Being able to see a baby soon after it has been conceived is a visible proof to many that a baby is, indeed, a human being. Others are not moved by this evidence.

One of the greatest recent arguments is whether taxpayer dollars should be spent on abortions. Since abortion is a legal procedure in the United States, many argue that this should not be treated any differently than other medical procedures. 

Opponents, of which there are many, disagree. In fact, many state and federal amendments have been put forth and many passed regarding this issue, agreeing that an abortion should not be funded with taxpayer dollars unless the life of the mother is at risk.

Two other interesting facets of the abortion debate include parental notification and shifting public opinion. All but seven states now require, in some form, that parents of minor girls be notified if their daughter is seeking an abortion. Even more, most states now require a 24-hour waiting period between the time a women is counseled about all of the risks and circumstances of an abortion on both her and her child and the procedure itself. Some want even longer waiting periods.

In 1985, 46% of Americans believed abortion should be legal; in 2007 that number dropped to 46%. Opinions do seem to be changing.