Abortion laws in danger of termination

By Melissa Kenyon

Birth control, the morning-after pill and abortion are measures more and more college-aged women are embracing, according to census data. The increase comes at a time when unintended pregnancy rates in this age group are higher than in any other.

But in the future, contraception and family planning methods may not be easily obtained by a trip to the local CVS or Planned Parenthood- and that future may not be too far away.

Last week, for the third time in four years, South Dakota legislators attempted to pass a bill that would ban abortion statewide. The measure is part of a movement by several states to directly challenge the landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade. Many other states are considering following suit.

Under Roe v. Wade, which was decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, abortions were made legal for any reason a woman and her doctor saw fit, up until the “point at which the fetus becomes ‘viable,'” or able to live outside the mother’s womb. This timeline varies according to different people’s opinions.

The decision, which overturned all previous federal and state laws that criminalized abortion, drew on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, stating most legislation outlawing abortion violated a constitutional right to privacy.

Roe v. Wade is one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases in United States history, and recently many states, like South Dakota, have become increasingly vocal about their intent to overturn it.

But while none of the states seeking to reverse Roe have succeeded in advancing their argument to the Supreme Court, many state governments have passed laws that regulate abortion practices.

Massachusetts has laws on the books that include parental consent for minors and prohibition of third-trimester abortions, among others.

Currently, one of the states and the nation’s most controversial abortion laws is post-viability – in part because of its ties with emergency contraception.

Post-viability or “late-term” abortions are induced procedures that end the pregnancy at a time when the fetus is able to live outside the womb.

Viability, however, is a debated concept, with some doctors placing it as early as 20 weeks and others as late as 28.

Massachusetts’ law sets viability at 24 weeks, which is a fairly generous granting when compared to other states, said Kate Rohdenburg, president of Northeastern Students for Choice.

However, in the case of late-term abortions, “accessibility is an altogether different story,” she said.

Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, only performs abortions up to 18 weeks and six days, at which time patients can use a hospital or other health care provider to got an abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy.

Some clinics may refuse abortion service completely, because in 45 states, including Massachusetts, most medical personnel are granted the right to refuse to perform them on the basis of moral or religious beliefs.

Many who oppose abortion observe a different time frame for viability than Massachusetts’ 24 weeks, believing life begins at conception.

Guided by this belief, emergency contraception and certain forms of hormonal contraception can be considered abortion. This belief also guides some lawmakers, like those in South Dakota, to attempt to ban both hormonal and emergency contraceptives statewide.

Emergency contraceptives, which are a high dose of female hormones taken up to five days after unprotected sex, prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation or fertilization.

In 1999, emergency contraception was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for over-the-counter purchase by women older than 18 and by prescription for minors.

Chris Miles, the president of NU Right to Life, said he believes the morality of contraception depends on how they are used.

“My official position is that life begins at conception,” he said. “So if it’s something that prevents conception, then I’m all for it; I think that’s excellent to use if you’re going to be sexually active. But if after conception, it stops the pregnancy in some way, then I don’t agree with that.”

Sunish O, a middler electrical engineering major, shares the same beliefs.

“I believe life begins at fertilization,” he said. “I believe that once the egg and sperm come together, the soul enters and life has formed. I feel that after that point, no one has the right to separate the two. The problem is many other people have differing views on when life begins. Since I consider life beginning when the soul enters the body, there is no way for me to prove at what point that happens and, therefore, it’s left to be interpreted.”

However, sophomore communications major Lindsay Hirdt said she agrees with Massachusetts’ post-viability law, and feels the increased accessibility of contraceptives can be seen as nothing but an important gain for women.

“I think selling Plan B [emergency contraception] over-the-counter is a huge step, especially with all the controversy surrounding the issue and the federal regulations on it,” she said. “To me, it’s one more step that makes Roe v. Wade harder to reverse.”

When it comes to deciding when abortions are allowed though, a lot must be taken into consideration.

The changing political climate in the United States could be the most fundamental component in the final decision to keep or discard Roe v. Wade, said Angus McQuilken, vice president of public relations and governmental affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

“Given the changes in Supreme Court membership, there’s every reason to believe that a repeal of Roe v. Wade is a possibility,” McQuilken said. “Even if it is not repealed, it will probably continue to be chipped away at until it is no longer meaningful.”

Law professor Martha Davis, who teaches the Seminar for Women’s Rights Lawyering at Northeastern, shares McQuilken’s sentiment.

“I wouldn’t minimize the concern,” she said. “There are all sorts of gray areas between permitting choice and not, and there are all kinds of regulations that can be imposed. It’s entirely possible that we could end up with something that’s not as clear-cut as Roe that will affect women’s accessibility to getting an abortion.”

Further clouding the waters in this issue is 2008 Rebublican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, who told a group of about 800 people in South Carolina last week that he “does not support Roe versus Wade” and feels “it should be overturned.”

Miles, however, said he thinks the ruling will stand for the time being.

“I do see it happening in the future, but not in the near future,” he said. “I definitely think, though, that along with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there has to be certain laws put forth; things like mandating that colleges have to have cheap on-campus housing for pregnant women. It’s not just about preventing abortions; it has to be about improving the status of women in our society.”

The future seems less than certain for Roe v. Wade, and it is the “next generation of leaders,” that will ultimately be responsible for the political activism that will determine its outcome, McQuilken said.

Miles agreed this issue would be forced upon his generation.

“We are going to be the ones that when, eventually, Roe v. Wade is overturned, are probably going to be affected most greatly,” he said. “I definitely think it’s good to get involved as early as possible.”

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