Roe Myths and Facts


Judge John G. Roberts, like every recent nominee to the Supreme Court, is sharing the spotlight.

He has been nominated to take Sandra Day O'Connor's place on the high court, but the attention isn't just on him. It's also on the Supreme Court's 1973 decision that legalized abortion: Roe v. Wade.

To hear some tell it, to question the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade is to be an extremist. Most people think that, in Roe, the court ruled that abortion, at least in the first trimester, should be a decision between a woman and her doctor. The courts, they say, should stay out of it.

Roe would be bad enough if that understanding were true. It would be a death sentence for babies with toes and fingers, beating hearts and developing brains. But it's not true. Roe is much worse.

For months, the U.S. bishops have been publishing information about Roe v. Wade to set the record straight. As the Supreme Court nomination draws more attention to the issue, groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Priests for Life have also begun information campaigns.

Some of the myths — and realities — about the famed 1973 decision follow.

Myth: Roe v. Wade only allowed abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Fact: Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, legalized abortion at any stage in pregnancy.

True, the Roe decision said abortion could not be restricted for any reason during the first three months of pregnancy. But it also ruled that, if the health of the mother was at stake, abortion was permissible at any point in the pregnancy.

Threats to “health” can mean anything from morning sickness to lethal illness to anxiety or depression — that of the woman or of her family members. Abortion businesses have gotten rich off that loophole for decades.

Myth: The mainstream media have been reporting Roe v. Wade accurately.

Fact: They've been making the same mistake for 32 years, saying that Roe only legalized abortion in the first trimester.

On Jan. 23, 1973, a headline in the New York Times announced: “High court rules abortions legal the first three months.” This July, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asking about Roe summed it up this way: “The Supreme Court's 1973 Roe versus Wade decision established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy.”

Myth: America's support for Roe v. Wade means that the American people are predominately for current abortion laws staying as they are.

Fact: Late in February, Harris released its latest poll on abortion. When people were asked if they support Roe v. Wade, a slight majority (52%) said they did. But the same poll showed that 72% of the same respondents would ban abortion in the second trimester. And 86% — that's almost 9 out of 10 — would ban it in the third trimester. They would oppose Roe if they knew the truth.

Myth: The current Supreme Court is divided 5-4 in favor of Roe v. Wade.

Fact: The 2004 the Supreme Court was divided 6-3 in favor of the basic Roe v. Wade abortion regime. The abortion majority on the court only narrows to 5-4 on the issue of the partial-birth abortion procedure. Pro-abortion polemicists conflate that with opposition to all abortion, and some journalists repeat the distortion.

Myth: Democratic appointees to the Supreme Court are pro-Roe; Republican appointees oppose it.

Fact: It is true that the Democratic appointees on the court can be counted on to protect the basic Roe v. Wade ruling. But most pro-Roe justices were appointed by Republicans. Nixon appointed John Paul Stevens, Gerald Ford appointed Anthony Kennedy, Ronald Reagan appointed O'Connor and George H.W. Bush appointed David Souter.

Will John G. Roberts Jr. join the three other anti-Roe nominees who are Republican appointees? We certainly hope so.

In 1990, as a Justice Department official under the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Roberts wrote a brief in a pending Supreme Court case stating the administration's position that “Roe was wrongly decided and should be overruled.”

He may have been stating his boss’ opinion, not his own. It ought to be his, though, too. It's certainly the most sensible opinion, when you look at the facts.