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Ryan J. Rusak commentary: Roe made our abortion debate worse. Can we now compromise on rights and limits?

Summary:

Anti-abortion supporters celebrate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 24, 2022.
Anti-abortion supporters celebrate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 24, 2022.
(Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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It doesn’t seem like it now, with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade reversal roiling the nation. But we may someday look back on June 24, 2022, as the day we started out toward a compromise, even consensus, on abortion.

Roe was poorly decided on constitutional grounds, a fact that even abortion-rights supporting liberals have acknowledged. It was always tenuous legally, and that’s partly why we’ve fought over it for decades.

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But most Americans support abortion rights at some level. And most see abortion as an evil to be minimized as much as possible. We haven’t heard those perspectives enough in the last 50 years because Roe prevented the level-finding for which our constitutional and political systems are designed.

Roe distorted the conversation. Voters can’t directly weigh in on Supreme Court justices and their decisions. Ask any legislator: When the phone rings off the hook or the email in-box blows up, they listen. For decades, they haven’t had to as much. The courts were the venue, and each side of the debate framed its actions primarily around persuading judges, not voters.

That’s not to be naive. The kind of shift portrayed here could take years, even decades, especially in places such as Texas. But minds change. Abortion itself is a great example. Better technology allows us to see a baby developing in the womb, and the earlier fetal viability reaches, the more people are uncomfortable with abortion.

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If the post-Roe world leads to terrible consequences for a large number of women, voters can push their legislators to make changes. They can’t vote Justice Samuel Alito out of office.

Smart abortion-rights advocates recognize this. Planned Parenthood Federation of America is already airing ads pledging to “fight back” with protests around the country.

“Then, we’ll demand that our leaders at every level represent our values,” the narrator says.

Well, yeah. That’s how it’s supposed to work, rather than having an unaccountable tribunal make policy for a vast and diverse country.

The path runs both ways, too. Some blue states are promising permissiveness on abortion and seem primed to have no limits on late-term procedures. If preventing abortion from the moment of conception is “extreme” in terms of public opinion — and it definitely is — so is allowing a doctor to sign off on a third-trimester abortion on thin mental-health reasons. And so is the state raising money to import women so they can have abortions .

It’s possible, and preferable, that after the initial burst of response to the ruling, the heat will fade. For all the passion around it, abortion directly affects few of us. It says much about the kind of world we want and how others are treated, but it’s not something in daily life for most people, even most women.

Much of the country wants abortion to be, as Bill Clinton famously said, “safe, legal and rare.” Our policymaking processes are bumpy, and many women will no doubt be denied what they see as a fundamental right until we get it right. But we can, and we should.

Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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