South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds recently signed into law a measure that would prohibit abortion except when necessary to save the life of the mother. The measure, clearly designed to test the limits of Roe v. Wade, aroused enough controversy that Rounds quickly went underground, informing the press that he would grant no further interviews on the measure.
No wonder: Republicans around the country treated Rounds to an old-fashioned shunning. President Bush brushed off South Dakota, repeating his oft-stated belief in exceptions for pregnancies initiated through rape and incest. Not a single Republican of stature uttered so much as an "attaboy."
Even philosophical kinsmen, such as the staff of National Review magazine, groused about the political inconvenience of it all. The magazine's editors complained the law would complicate the business of chipping away at Roe through incremental restrictions on abortion: Start with the wildly unpopular partial-birth abortion, and creep back toward conception. The magazine also cautioned that the new law could force the Supreme Court to affirm Roe, and would stiffen Democratic opposition to the president's next Supreme Court nominee, as if that weren't going to be maniacal under any circumstances.
In this fashion, pragmatic poll-watchers cast off their principles. Their alarums won't make much of a difference, though. For good or ill, the debate is on. Abortion has shifted from the Great Unmentionable in American politics to the Issue That Must Be Addressed.
Abortion has evolved as civil-rights issues often do. What began as a question of conscience for a few has become a concern for many.
Legal scholars, including many abortion supporters, now openly acknowledge that Roe v. Wade is hooey — grounded in hocus-pocus rather than facts and law.
A generation of younger Americans, having been exposed to three-dimensional color sonograms, no longer regard unborn children as lumpy, undifferentiated thing-a-ma-jigs. They think of them as babies.
Most importantly, Americans understand that the Supreme Court denied this country the benefit of democratic resolution of the issue. This explains why South Dakota is not alone. A similar measure has cropped up in the Mississippi Legislature, and a host of other states are contemplating doing the same.
If South Dakota has led the way toward a democratic eruption, it also has shaken up the political marketplace by rejecting the popular rape-and-incest exception.
The loophole doesn't make moral sense. If life begins at conception, children conceived through rape and incest are human beings. They are innocent of crimes, even if they are the byproduct of horrendous violence against women. So on what basis should we permit their destruction?
If one argues that a woman would suffer trauma by bringing such babies to term, what would prevent other women from citing trauma as an equally cogent reason for their abortions? Trauma introduces an obligation to pay special heed to the victims of rape or incest.
Offer counseling. Provide lavish pre- and post-natal care. Take time to grant them as much support as the state can provide. And prosecute ruthlessly the creeps who violated them. That alone could do as much as anything else to help such mothers get a decent night's sleep. It also would remove a popular bit of cover for sexual predators, who try to "undo" their crimes by urging their victims to abort.
South Dakota forces us to think in broader terms about our most fundamental rights and responsibilities. Most people now understand abortion's creepy slippery slope. The invented right to privacy begat abortion, which begat euthanasia — which in time will beget the state-sponsored "mercy killing" of defective infants and disabled seniors. (This has happened already in the Netherlands.)
With each step, the fundamental right to life has slipped further from the grasp of the living and into the hands of outsiders, such as doctors and "ethicists." Thanks to the courts, the "right to choose" has spun off a brand-new right to snuff grandma.
The end of abortion-as-we-now-know-it isn't likely to come slowly, as neo-pragmatists hope. Civil-rights revolutions simmer for a long time, and end with a burst of change. A bloody war choked off slavery, after decades of attempted incrementalism. Segregation went down in a heap, with a bang and not a whimper. The pressure is building to rein in abortion and forge a comfortable consensus about how to protect life while treating with compassion the victims of sexual assault.
Abortion inflames passions because Roe v. Wade ruled the issue off-limits to the balm of democracy. South Dakota, by staking its own ground, has finally lanced the boil.