Usually, when the Senate debates abortion legislation, the question is whether or to what extent it chips away at Roe v. Wade.

Now, Roe itself is on the table.

The Senate will soon appoint conferees to reconcile partial-birth-abortion bills that have passed the House and Senate. The only difference between them is that the Senate's version includes Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin's “sense of the Senate” amendment declaring that Roe v. Wade “was appropriate,” “secures an important constitutional right” and “should not be overturned.” This is the subject of this week's eight-hour debate.

Roe, of course, is a real person. Her name is Norma McCorvey, and her story is fascinating. It begins in 1969 when she was a young homeless woman in Texas. On the streets since she was a child, Norma found herself pregnant for the third time — the second time out of wedlock. Abortion was not legal in Texas, so Norma found her, way to two young lawyers and she telling them she'd been gang-raped.

They told her they would help her get an abortion, and she became a plaintiff in their case against Texas' abortion law. The case dragged on, Norma had her baby, and years later she saw news reports about her case — it had gone all the way to the Supreme Court and had made abortion legal in all 50 states.

At first she was shocked and upset. She turned to alcohol and drugs, and she attempted suicide. But then, throwing herself into the cause for which she had become somewhat of a celebrity, Norma joined the staff of a Texas abortion clinic.

She did many jobs in the clinic, but there were two things she couldn't do: She couldn't lie to the women, though she was often asked to do just that, and she couldn't handle the “tissue” — the clinic's term for the bags of body parts that were stored in a freezer for the weekly pickup.

Finally Norma had to leave: “You see the body parts, you hear the women's cries, and you can't keep lying to yourself.” Today she is pro-life and runs a group called Roe no More.

Roe v. Wade is 30 years old this year. But in 30 years we haven't studied abortion's effect on women's health, on the family or on society. In fact, we don't even know with certainty how many children have been aborted. Proponents of legal abortion have opposed any real scrutiny of it. In a very real sense, Roe v. Wade has been a 30-year social experiment on the lives of women and children.

But what have we learned?

We have learned one thing well — not to question Roe. A brief glance at the judicial-nominations debate is evidence enough of this.

But there's a more sinister lesson Roe v. Wade has taught this country — that abortion is the compassionate response to a woman with an untimely pregnancy. The assumption that abortion is good for women must be challenged.

There's been no systematic examination, for none has been permitted, but 30 years of unlimited abortion “freedom” has resulted in a very sad reality. Women choose abortion as a last resort, not as a free choice. Women turn to abortion because they feel alone and helpless, abandoned or pressured by boyfriends or family members. Abortion is not the act of empowerment it was promised to be.

Even the pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Institute shows in its survey of women that the overarching reasons women have abortions are a lack of financial resources and emotional support. When you look at it this way, you begin to see abortion as the result of our failure as a society to help women, not as a way to help them.

There is a site called afterabor This is most decidedly not a pro-life site. It is a support-group site for women trying to cope with the aftermath of their abortions. The stories have common themes: Their families pressured them, their boyfriends abandoned them or gave them ultimatums; they had nowhere to turn. Some had their abortions almost 20 years ago and have mourned for their children every single day since. Many speak of clinical depression and medication. Some attempt suicide. Many tell stories of how their marriages fell apart; one women spoke of the “silent gloom” between herself and her husband that wouldn't go away. Their profound loneliness is palpable. You cannot visit this site and be unmoved.

This is the legacy of Roe v. Wade. Should the Senate affirm this legacy? Only if it turns its backs on women.

The truth is, no compassionate person should want a woman to suffer through the personal tragedy of abortion. No teen-age girl should have to drop out of school because she became pregnant. No young woman should have to face the prospect of a life of poverty. No one should feel abandoned by her family and friends. And no person should ever have to suffer the pain and anguish of abortion.

It's time we as a nation come in solidarity with women in crisis and offer real solutions.

Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.

Cathleen A. Cleaver, Esq., is director of planning and information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.