Out Of The Time Warp

The must-see movies were "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Deliverance." The average new car cost more than $4,000. "You're So Vain" was the No. 1 single on the record charts. Airlines began a new practice: inspecting carry-on luggage.

It was the beginning of 1973, and in some ways it seems a very long time ago. Yet the most important event of that period is somehow frozen in amber. Thirty years ago this week the Supreme Court ruled that American women had a constitutional right to privacy that included legal abortion. Roe v. Wade has become the starting point for every discussion about the issue ever since.

How Americans feel has changed very little in polls over the past three decades. According to Gallup, "Americans believe abortion should be legal, but on a somewhat limited basis." But everything has changed in the lives of American women. Those changes will set the stage for abortion politics in the years to come, at least as much as--perhaps more than--the decades-old decision of the high court.

The impulse to combine the world at home with the world of work is not an option today; it is a given. There are women for whom a career is an essential part of identity and self-esteem. There are women for whom a job is an essential part of buying groceries and paying rent. And there are women for whom trading a welfare check for a minimum-wage job is an essential part of government reform programs.

The number of mothers working outside the home has grown incrementally over the past 30 years. But with the exception of the Clinton administration's family-leave legislation, Washington has mainly watched from the sidelines as women have struggled to square the demands of child rearing with those of work. America remains the only significant developed nation that has no national child-care policy.

Because of that, and because of education and research, women have increasingly come to understand something about having kids: it is demanding work, best done from a bedrock of maturity and security and not to be entered into casually. Many are waiting longer to take it on. Someone once told me I would feel differently about abortion after I had children myself. She was right. I now feel that mothering is so critical and so challenging that to force anyone into its service is immoral.

American women know more about their bodies today. They understand the fine points of reproduction; they know what the fetus is and, as important, what it isn't. They have developed a sense of themselves as educated consumers, whether in childbirth, in menopause or in maintenance; they have a sense of ownership of the equipment. They are abetted in this by the increased number of female doctors, who now number almost 50 percent. In their political efforts they can also count female politicians as allies. When Roe was handed down, there were no women in the Senate. Today there are 14 female senators. Nine are wholehearted supporters of abortion rights, and three support the right to an abortion with some reservations.

Millions of American women have had safe and legal abortions, and can testify to their friends, their daughters and their legislators that it was the right choice at a difficult time. But the abortion rate has slowly fallen. In 2000 it was at its lowest ebb since 1974. Some of that may be because the number of providers has decreased after decades of persistent, sometimes lethal, harassment by anti-abortion forces. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also posit that the decline has something to do with a decrease in unintended pregnancies and increased use of contraception. And of those abortions that did occur, nearly nine out of 10 took place early, in the first trimester.

In the first six months after RU-486 was approved in this country, 6 percent of all pregnancies were ended at home with pills rather than in a clinic with surgical intervention, according to a recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. In France, Scotland and Sweden, more than half of early abortions now take place that way. "Medical termination is the wave of the future," says Dr. Paul Blumenthal of Johns Hopkins University, "because it offers control and authority to women who have become accustomed to both."

The most powerful predictor of the fate of abortion in this country is not a 30-year-old legal opinion. It is contained in the sum total of these changes in the lives of American women. Taken together, they indubitably argue for a future with more, not less, control over fertility. On this anniversary there is increasing fear that Republican appointments to the court will mean Roe will be overturned. Whether the answer to that would be a regimen of pills or a state-by-state political donnybrook is unclear. What is manifest is that those who oppose the right to individual control over the womb lost the battle, not 30 years ago, but day after day after that. The lives of women have changed. We know our rights and our limitations, what we can manage and what we cannot. And sometimes, sadly, that means, and will continue to mean, the end of a pregnancy. This is not 1973. The clock cannot move backward.