Karen O'Connor doesn't remember the fabled coat hangers or the back-alley abortions. What she does remember, growing up in western New York in the 1960s, were the girls who would abruptly leave her Roman Catholic high school every year, mysteriously headed to visit "a distant aunt." When they returned six months later, everyone knew they'd been pregnant, but few dared to ask about the babies they'd given up. "A lot of girls were saying a lot of prayers that they weren't pregnant," says O'Connor. She was in college when the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. After law school, she cofounded a Georgia abortion-rights group. Now director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, O'Connor wrestles with how to make the abortion fight relevant. "I'm sort of the last generation of people who remember it," says O'Connor, 50, author of "No Neutral Ground: Abortion Politics in an Age of Absolutes." "It's really ancient history to our students."
An entire generation has grown up since the Roe decision, which marks its 30th anniversary this week. Over the decades, American public opinion has remained remarkably steady--most believe abortion should be legal, but rare. But interest groups on both extremes have continued to battle for the upper hand. When Bill Clinton was in the White House, abortion-rights advocates grew complacent, knowing he would veto any draconian measure the Republican Congress tried to pass. Anti-abortion forces, fueled by their belief that lives were at stake, only grew more determined. By the time George W. Bush took office, abortion opponents had readied a raft of new restrictions and delighted at the prospect of filling Supreme Court openings with a supporter or two. "The momentum is definitely with us," says Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee. Those who fought to legalize abortion worry that they're heading toward retirement just when their cause faces its greatest threat in decades. "We need to awaken the young women of this country," Sen. Barbara Boxer told the crowd at a Planned Parenthood book party last week. "This is a real fight we're in now."
Though abortion-rights activists have been predicting the downfall of Roe for years, they may have more reason to worry now. Last January they targeted six Senate seats they hoped supporters would capture. In November, they lost all but one. Since 1995, states have enacted more than 300 abortion restrictions. And Congress has voted on 148 abortion-related measures--all but 25 were defeats for abortion rights. Now with more anti-abortion legislation looming, there's no longer a fire wall of Democrats running the Senate to keep bills from reaching President Bush's desk. "All the elements are there to take us back to the pre-Roe days," says Planned Parenthood's Gloria Feldt.
Abortion-rights supporters have never been subtle about hyping the possibility--however remote--that abortion could be outlawed again. "I believe that if President Bush is in office until 2008 and the House and the Senate remain in anti-choice hands, American women will lose their right to choose," says Kate Michelman, president of Naral Pro-Choice America. Naral membership dwindled during the Clinton years, but since Bush's election it has grown more than 70 percent to 400,000. Michelman now hopes to attract more young women--a key target of the group's new grass-roots political effort to build a list of 4 million abortion-rights voters in some 20 battleground election states. "We've got to rebuild the ranks," says Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, which plans a drive of its own this summer. Those potential voters haven't gone unnoticed by Democrats: all six presidential hopefuls will appear together for the first time at this week's Naral dinner.
While abortion-rights groups relaxed their efforts during the Clinton years, the anti-abortion forces took their frustrations to the streets, stepping up clinic blockades that sometimes erupted in violence. When a 1994 law cracked down on protests, a setback expectedly turned into a boon. "I'd see people, eyes bulging, faces red," recalls Ken Connor, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council. "People watching the evening news had trouble identifying with people being hauled away in paddy wagons." The activists channeled their energy into lobbying and fund-raising efforts. "We had to learn to fight in a different way," says Sandy Rios of Concerned Women for America, which now has half a million members. Since 1995, when abortion opponents laid out graphic details of late-term abortions on the floor of the House, polls have shown growing support for some restrictions. Now activists are putting technology to work: ads released last week by a new group, Faith2Action, use 3- and 4-D ultrasound photos to put a detailed face on the fetus.
Anti-abortion activists had stored up a long legislative wish list during their years of exile. Now they want to repeal the abortion pill RU-486, recognize fetuses as crime victims, fund fancy ultrasound machines for crisis-pregnancy centers and strengthen parental notification. They're also backing nominations of conservative federal court judges. Much of the agenda--including a ban on the procedure they call "partial-birth abortion"--is now likely to pass the GOP Congress. But some activists warn against overplaying their hand: they say the movement should learn from temperance advocates who pushed too far on Prohibition and lost disastrously.
That's a message that seems to resonate with the Bush White House, which has plugged smaller measures but avoided a frontal assault on Roe. In reality, say some legal analysts, both sides may be exaggerating the stakes. One new anti-abortion justice isn't likely to change the Supreme Court's outlook on Roe. And even if a new court did overturn it, few states would ban abortion outright, says Emory University legal scholar David Garrow. "Thirty years from now we'll be in about the same position," he predicts.
In her classroom at American University, O'Connor tries to present both sides of the debate, hosting speakers from Concerned Women for America. But outside her seminars, many students don't realize there's a debate underway at all. Junior Asia Nice, 21, feels no impending danger. "There are enough women in politics today that it would never be overturned," she says of Roe. "I hope I would never have to picket for that." Talk like that makes O'Connor worry about the future. "There has not been a call to arms," she says. But with abortion opponents marshaling their forces, she's not about to give up the fight.