Even after all the decades since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court the abortion debate still rages, but we’ve noticed in recent years that it rarely shows up on the front pages of the newspapers or the top of the cable and network news broadcasts. The upcoming battle over the appointment and confirmation of a replacement for retiring Supreme Justice Anthony Kennedy is bringing the long-simmering battle back to the figurative front-burner of American politics, however, and we’re already dreading what will ensue.
Here in our usually placid hometown of Wichita, Kansas, the abortion debate has always been especially acrimonious. The very interesting mother of a very interesting high school friend of ours was picketing on the sidewalks outside a local Wesleyan hospital even before the Roe v. Wade decision was passed, and the abortion debate has played an outsized role in local and state politics ever since.
Although Wichita and Kansas are unusually church-going and conservative places by modern secular standards, the state somehow wound up with the most permissive abortion laws outside of China and its one-child policy, and the city was long home to one of less than a handful of doctors in the entire world willing to perform the third-trimester abortions that even the Roe v. Wade decision allowed states to restrict, which our many years of Republican legislatures and Republican governors somehow never got around to restricting. The massive gulf between public opinion and public policy enflamed passions on both sides even more than in the rest of the country, and things got unpleasantly heated around here.
Back in ’91 the radical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue came to town for a “Summer of Mercy” that involved physically blocking access to the city’s three abortion clinics, all owned by the doctor who performed those internationally controversial third-trimester abortions, and we still remember it as the hottest summer ever around here, notwithstanding the higher temperatures of other summers. Hundreds of church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens willingly went to jail the cause, hundreds of other church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright citizens stopped talking to their neighbors and longtime friends as a result, and we know of at least one marriage because of all the acrimony, and countless Wichitans with no strong feelings about abortion were inconvenienced by the traffic tie-ups next to the main clinic along the crucial Kellogg Avenue freeway on their way home from work.
We were reporting for the local newspaper at the time, which still had a wide readership at the time, and despite our best efforts to be objective and factual about what was going on the sidewalks of Wichita we and our equally objective and factual colleagues wound up incurring the wrath of people on both sides of the debate. Journalists from around the country and the entire world wound up sharing a beer with us at a tavern next door do the clinic on Central Avenue, as the protests brought unexpected attention to Wichita from pretty much everywhere, and they all had the same complaints about how their determinedly objective and factual accounts were received.
In the end, though, Operation Rescue’s radical stand against abortion and its civil disobedience tactics got the worst of it both here and around the world. The most enthusiastic supporters of abortion rights were predictably outraged, the more mainstream anti-abortion groups distanced themselves from Operation Rescue’s civil disobedience tactics, and Congress wound up passing and President Bill Clinton wound up signing some tough laws about access to abortion clinics that those church-going and baby-having and lawn-mowing upright Wichitans did not dare defy. Despite Republican legislatures and Republican governors, that internationally controversial Wichita abortionist continued to perform third-trimester abortions next to Kellogg Avenue in Wichita.
The anti-abortion forces did succeed in making opposition to the practice a litmus test for any Republican candidate seeking any sort of office, no matter how he strident he might be about a tax cuts or deregulation or any other Republican position, but despite Republican majorities in the legislature and Republican governors they somehow never did succeed in imposing the constitutionally permissible ban on third-trimester abortions. That matter was instead settled when a radicalized anti-abortion activist came down from Kansas City and shot Dr. George Tiller in the head during a worship service on a sunny Sunday morning in ’09 at a lovely Lutheran church way over on East 13th Street.
All of the mainstream anti-abortion groups denounced the assassination, and all of the world press we met while covering the trial on a freelance basis seemed slightly disappointed that a church-going and conservative Wichita jury found the assassin guilty after an hour’s deliberation after a trial where the defendant freely admitted his guilt, and since then there have been no third-trimester abortions performed in Wichita. State law somehow still allows any doctor to do so, but no one has dared to do so, and since then Kansas has been more involved in debates about tax cuts and voting regulations and trade policies and other desultory matters.
Since then a majority of Ireland has voted to repeal that very Catholic country’s strict anti-abortion laws, and Mississippi and a couple of other proudly Protestant southern states have passed restrictive anti-abortion laws that press against the limits of the Roe v. Wade decision, but here and around the world the the abortion debate has gotten less ink and airtime than those desultory debates about tax rates and trade policies and the “Russia thing” and the latest outages about President Donald Trump and all the rest of it. As maddening as it all is, we preferred it to the abortion debate.
Justice Kennedy’s retirement and Trump’s power to appoint his replacement brings all the abortion issue acrimony back to the front burner of American politics, though, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Back when Trump was a Democrat he was staunchly in favor of abortion rights, even unto that third trimester, and our guess is that the first abortion bills that passed Trump’s desk were quickly paid, but ever since he decided to run for president as a Republican he’s been even more stridently anti-abortion than even the mainstream anti-abortion groups, and by now one side is hopeful and the other side is fearful that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. The contrarian Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz is somehow a conservative hero for defending Trump in the “Russia thing,” but he’s worried that five-to-four Trump majority on the Supreme Court will result in an opinion banning all abortions on the grounds of a constitutional right to life at the moment of conception, and the better bet is that Trump’s pick will result in all 50 states arguing about abortion without any constitutional restraints.
We don’t see that ending well for anybody, and especially the Republican party. To this day we’re too objective and factual to declare any moral stand on the abortion issue, although we’re still guilt-ridden about the third-trimester abortions of viable fetuses that occurred in our hometown and the cold-blooded murder of the doctor who performed them, but we can’t see how it’s a winning play for the proudly adulterous Trump or his family values Republican party. Our long and desultory experience of the abortion debate around here tells us that nobody is ever persuaded by any argument the other side might make, that the debate is inevitably murderous no matter which way you look at it, and in the end most of America is just hoping for an easy drive home from work.
— Bud Norman