The Debate on Abortion, Four Decades After Roe v. Wade

January 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Forty years ago, in the landmark case Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decided that abortion should be legal in the United States. Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life and Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America join Gwen Ifill to debate the state of abortion rights and activism today.

GWEN IFILL: Forty years after it became legal, the debate over abortion has not gone away.

According to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released today, 70 percent of Americans do not want to see Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which legalized the practice, overturned. But 58 percent of those polled for the survey also favored imposing some limits on abortion. A Pew Research poll last week found 63 percent opposed overturning Roe v. Wade.

But the parameters of the discussion have evolved, as the battleground has shifted from Washington to the states.

Joining us to discuss the shape of that debate four decades later are Charmaine Yoest. She’s president of Americans United for Life. And Nancy Keenan, outgoing president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Welcome to you both.

So, 40 years later, is Roe vs. Wade still relevant?

NANCY KEENAN, NARAL Pro-Choice America: Absolutely.

And I think because the whole issue around whether individual women make a decision with their family, their doctor, their God, or whether politicians sitting here in Washington in the states, as a governor or a state legislator, absolutely is relevant. And it is something that we all have to be vigilant around in protecting this very basic freedom for women.

GWEN IFILL: Charmaine Yoest, is the fight playing out still on the federal level, or has it moved on?

CHARMAINE YOEST, Americans United for Life: It’s really moved on. The day after Roe, abortion policy will be governed by the state, closer to the people, where it belongs.

And over the last two years, Americans United for Life’s legal team has been involved in seeing the passage of 50 bills that are limiting abortion in ways that the American people see as very commonsense, parental consent, informed consent, clinic regulations. There’s a lot going on at the state level that is exciting and energizing to this movement.

GWEN IFILL: If the anti-abortion movement has been chipping away at the edges over these 40 years, while everybody has been focused in Washington and keeping the Supreme Court out of this, are they making progress?

NANCY KEENAN: Well, I think what happens is that when we see, for example, personhood being introduced in Mississippi, and when the people have the actual opportunity to vote at that ballot box, they vote no and they reject it.

We saw the abortion ban in South Dakota twice defeated by the people. I think the thing here is that politicians that are being elected are stealth. They don’t run — they don’t come to your door saying they’re going to be run and be anti-choice or they’re going to restrict women’s access.

They come and they talk to you about the economy and jobs. Then they get there, and people are finding that these laws are passed, many which are outrageous, and they don’t accept. We saw that in Virginia, when there was outrage over the mandatory transvaginal ultrasound. Women spontaneously showed up at the capitol, saying, stop this nonsense.

GWEN IFILL: Charmaine Yoest, your folks have said for a while that we’re moving from talking about the baby to talking about the mother and talking about women.

But these issues, these personhood initiative amendments, and the transvaginal discussion that happened in Virginia, how does that fit into your strategy?

CHARMAINE YOEST: Well, I think it’s just a little bit funny for Nancy to completely write off state legislators, who are very close to the people.

And over the last few years, we have had 2,500 requests in 39 states from state legislators for help to pass pro-life legislation. So there is a real vibrancy right now to looking at commonsense kinds of solutions that fit where the American people are.

GWEN IFILL: What happens at the ballot box when it’s not being done by legislators?

CHARMAINE YOEST: Well, I think it’s a little disingenuous to discount what legislators are doing, when they actually report to the people and can be thrown out of office.

GWEN IFILL: But you’re discounting the ballot box?

CHARMAINE YOEST: No, I’m not discounting the ballot box. What I’m saying is that there is a real dynamism to what is going on.

And you’re seeing such — there was a three-fold increase in legislative action across the country over the last several years. So I think that we’re very energized by this and see a real gain — momentum gathering as we move forward into the next decade.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that.

If there are — you say they’re stealth. But if they are legislators who represent this point of view who are getting things done, who are getting these bills enacted, how is your movement pushing back against that?Or are they?

NANCY KEENAN: It’s all about the elections. And it’s all about making sure that those people that are elected, whether it’s at the courthouse or to the White House, that they share the values of the American public, as you have seen at the polls.

The American public doesn’t want Roe overturned. They also reject these barriers that are being put up for women. I will give you the example of the ultrasound, a forced procedure against her will without a doctor’s recommendation. And these are politicians sitting in a statehouse saying, we know best. We know best for you what the decision should be one way or another.

So, yes, these politicians are being elected. My point is, is that they are some of the most extreme in the country and that the people, if they knew more specifically what they were standing for, if they ran on their pro-life values, I think they’d be rejected also at the ballot box.

GWEN IFILL: Would you like to respond?

CHARMAINE YOEST: I think that Nancy is discounting where the American people are looking at commonsense things like parental consent.

You know, even my friends who disagree with me on abortion are saying, well, if my daughter is going in for a major medical procedure, I want to know about it. The question becomes, is there — there’s not an abortion that the abortion lobby ever wants to see reined in.

Even this last year, we had a debate over sex-selection abortion and whether or not you should be able to abort a baby just because she’s a little girl or because the baby might be disabled. There is never a regulation that they are willing to sign on to and be reasonable about.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s step back for a moment and think philosophically a little bit about this argument, because I know that you and I have had arguments about what abortion should be and the gray areas and what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be for decades now.

So, you step back. And we have now a generation of women who came of age at a time when Roe was law and it was never challenged. Where are those women going and how are you speaking to them, the post-Roe generation?

NANCY KEENAN: Well, and there are several. But I think what the good news is, is that this millennial generation, under 30, there are 76 million of them in this country, and they share the pro-choice values.

They believe that women should make this decision, and not a politician. In addition, we have to — they have to connect that personal — those personal values by acting politically. So I believe there is enormous hope for the future, for this generation to act much more progressively, much more actively in the political arena once they decide to run for office, once they decide to vote for people.

They’re going to take those pro-choice values with them.

CHARMAINE YOEST: That just doesn’t square up with what we’re seeing in the actual data.

And even Nancy herself has said in interviews that she was stunned last year when she saw how many young people were flooding into Washington, D.C., for the March for Life. There are two groups of people that are creating a real dynamism in the pro-life movement. One are young people, who are demonstrably more pro-life than their parents were.

And the second is this whole increasing community of women who have survived abortion themselves and who are willing to come forward now and say that they regret their abortion. They feel betrayed. They feel like they were not given all the information that they needed by the women and the men who claimed to be representing their interests.

GWEN IFILL: But has the argument shifted now from where it used to be, from legality, whether this should be legal, to access to these procedures?

NANCY KEENAN: I think it’s absolutely where the debate has become, because it is legal in this country and the fact that the access has become difficult for women because of the barriers that the anti-choice movement has put in front of these women.

A 24-hour waiting period sounds like a pretty good idea until you live in the middle of South Dakota or Nebraska, and the closest clinic is several hundreds miles away and that you have made a decision. You have thought about it. And now you go and you have to travel, maybe have day care or child care for your children, get a hotel, and then come back and think about it for 24 hours?

 Women think about this. They understand the complexity of it. They know what their decision is, because it’s their life, their story. And I think that’s where the disconnect is. Who do you trust?Who decides?There’s the million-dollar question. Who decides?Does she or the government?

CHARMAINE YOEST: Women feel betrayed by an abortion industry that has put money and profits over women’s health.

There are over a dozen clinics that are being investigated today across this country for unsafe, unsanitary conditions. And the abortion lobby does everything they can, everything they can to keep from having commonsense regulations put in place. We regulate veterinary clinics better than we do abortion clinics in this country. And that is outrageous.

That is not serving American women. And American women are the ones who are speaking up and saying, enough.

GWEN IFILL: As this debate moves to the states and as it moves to these incremental efforts to undermine Roe, is there a danger that Roe might just collapse, it may always continue to exist, but basically be cannibalized from within by all of these other efforts?

NANCY KEENAN: You know, I think that there — we always have to be vigilant.

And I think that we have to make sure that people that are elected to office understand what is at stake here. And that’s freedom and privacy. But I do believe that the people in this country share the values of being pro-choice. And they’re not going to let that happen.

GWEN IFILL: And is that your goal, ultimately, that Roe just doesn’t matter because it’s been taken apart from inside?

CHARMAINE YOEST: You know, Gwen, it’s interesting. We stand with North Korea and China as the only — only four countries in the entire world that don’t regulate abortion after viability.

We can do better as a civilized country of — not only for babies, but also for women, for protecting women’s health.

GWEN IFILL: Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life, and Nancy Keenan, president, outgoing president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, thank you both very much for a civilized conversation about abortion.

CHARMAINE YOEST: Thank you, Gwen.

NANCY KEENAN: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Online, health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser examines how public opinions on abortion have and haven’t changed over the years. And from the NewsHour archives, see our 1992 reporting when the Supreme Court revisited the “Roe v. Wade” decision and upheld it.