A striking curiosity of American life is that the names of legal cases can insinuate themselves into everyday dialogue. None more so, of course, than Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision where a majority-liberal Supreme Court extracted from the Constitution’s protection of life, liberty and property a constitutional right to abortion: absolute in the first trimester, qualified in the second, and, in rare cases, even in the third. In a 1992 fine-tuning exercise, the rule was re-written as a right to abortion unless and until the foetus was viable at about 24 weeks. But the principle remains.
Southern and rural states always saw Roe v Wade as a liberal aberration. Three years ago, Mississippi, where public opinion remains obstinately pro-life, threw down the gauntlet. Its governor signed a law banning all abortion beyond 15 weeks, viable foetus or not, except in an emergency (or in the case of severe foetal abnormality). He hoped the courts would strike it down and give the chance for a more conservative Supreme Court to think again. The plan worked: the courts obliged, and the Supremes have now taken the case. We can expect a decision next year.
No-one knows what the Court will decide (though the smart money is on it simply bringing forward the time after which abortion can be forbidden). But even before the armies of well-paid lawyers accept their briefs and mount the Supreme Court steps, organisations like Planned Parenthood have condemned the court for taking the case at all. Christian LoBue of NARAL Pro-Choice America referred to ‘an ominous sign and an alarming reminder that the threat to the legal right to abortion is imminent and real.’
The scene is thus set for a kind of cultural Last Battle: on one side, reasonable progressive America; on the other, the southern rural states with their Bible-bashing pickup drivers.