On the one hand, retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor gave us some comfort with the unanimous decision January 18 reaffirming the need to include exceptions for medical emergencies in a New Hampshire law that restricts teenagers' access to abortion. On the other, though, there is the sharp pain of knowing this is the last decision in which she will participate. We don't know how this new Roberts-Alito-Thomas-Scalia court will rule if the late-term abortion ban case is heard, as the Bush administration has asked, but we doubt it will be on the side of women who need an abortion for medical reasons and doctors who know it is their responsibility to care for patients in all circumstances.
Alito's record on abortion dates back to his 1985 memo to the Reagan administration's Solicitor-General. In that memo, he advised that the best way to undermine Roe was by gradually chipping away at its protections, and we have every reason to believe that he will do exactly that if confirmed to the Supreme Court. On the Court of Appeals, he was required to follow Supreme Court decisions, but as a member of the Supreme Court, he will be free to overrule those precedents with which he disagrees, no matter how well-established and long-standing.
In three days of hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Alito stood by his statement in that memo that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." He declined time and again to acknowledge that Roe v. Wade is "settled law" and refused to disavow his 1991 decision that would have required a woman to notify her husband before an abortion, despite expert evidence of increased spousal violence against pregnant women. In my view, Alito has shown an appalling lack of understanding for life's complexities and the circumstances that some women must endure.
If Samuel Alito gets onto the Supreme Court, there is little doubt that he will vote to dismantle the remaining legal protections that allow women to make private decisions with dignity. Roe v. Wade may not be overturned or reversed, at least not immediately, but it can be increasingly rendered moot. Even with Roe's core protections in place, 467 laws have been passed in the past 10 years that restrict a woman's ability to control her reproductive destiny-including laws that limit access to contraception. Basic reproductive choice is at risk in 34 states and on shaky grounds in another 11 states.
As a minister, I know that many women struggle to make moral decisions about an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. I also know that most people of faith believe that women must be able to make their own personal determinations about what is right for themselves and their families. Poll results, including a recent survey by The Pew Center for People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public repeatedly show that most Americans want Roe v. Wade to remain as the law of the land. They want women to be healthy, safe, and secure, and in control of their lives. They do not think a woman should be forced to travel long distances to obtain a legal medical procedure or go from drugstore to drugstore in search of her doctor-prescribed birth control.
I believe the Supreme Court with Samuel Alito will make it harder for women to obtain basic reproductive health care, including birth control and emergency contraception in case of contraceptive failure. We should all be concerned, because Alito's record on this basic right is clearly related to how he will rule on other rights and freedoms that Americans hold dear.