The issue of abortion in the United States is a highly charged issue with significant political and ethical debate.

Table of contents
1 Legal aspects
2 Basic statistics
3 Landmark case - Roe v. Wade
4 Legislative developments
5 Anti-abortion activism

Legal aspects

The prevailing legal opinion on abortion in the United States, following the Supreme Court of the United States's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, is that abortion is legal prior to the third trimester of pregnancy and that a fetus's right to life and a woman's right to control her body must be balanced. Therefore, U.S. courts have upheld a woman's right to abortion, but this right is limited and conditional.

Given this legal foundation, much of the ensuing debate has been in determining when the fetus is "viable" outside the womb as a measure of when the "life" of the fetus is its own (and thereby requiring protection of the state), or under the control of the mother. The advent of medical technology has enhanced the ability of a fetus to live outside the womb from 28 weeks old down towards 24 weeks making the determination of being "viable" somewhat more complicated.

Though abortion is legal in many Western European countries, the procedure is more widely available in the United States. U.S. abortion law, in terms of how late an abortion may take place, is considered more liberal than that of other nations such as France or Germany, for example. Canada and England are more liberal with granting abortion on demand, while Australia restricts it far more.

Basic statistics

Because reporting of abortions is not mandatory, statistics vary. The most significant statistics come from the Centers For Disease Control, Alan Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood.

  • Source: The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (Pro-choice Organization), 1998
  • Number of abortions in United States (1998) - 1.5 million
  • Pecentage of abortions occurring:
    • By the end of the first twelve weeks - 90%
    • After twenty-four weeks - 600 (<1%)
    • After twenty-seven weeks - 327 (<0.5%)

  • Source: Center for Disease Control (US Government), MWWR, December 1994
  • Number of abortions: 1,500,000:
    • By the end of first twelve weeks - 88.8%
    • Between thirteen to twenty weeks - 10.0%
    • After twenty-two weeks - 1.2%

Landmark case - Roe v. Wade

In deciding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court declared that the issue of abortion and abortion rights falls under the rubric of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution as a matter of a person's right to privacy in her person. Hence, the court holds that a first-trimester embryo or fetus carried by a woman falls within her right to determine for herself, privately, what is to occur with her own body. The court further ruled that the state could intervene to restrict abortion in the second trimester of development and could outlaw it altogether in the third trimester (about 4/5 of U.S. states forbid third-trimester abortion except as necessary for the mother's health). A prime aim of abortion opponents in the United States is to have Roe v. Wade overturned.

The 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey overturned the strict trimester formula, and emphasized the right to abortion as grounded in the general sense of liberty protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, rather than a generalized right to privacy. Advancements in medical technology, expected to continue, meant that a fetus might be considered viable, and thus have some basis of a right to life, at 22 or 23 weeks rather than at the 28 that was more common at the time Roe was decided. For this reason, the old trimester formula was ruled obsolete, with a new focus on viability of the fetus.

Currently in the United States 50% of all abortions are performed in the first eight weeks of pregnancy and 89% in the first twelve weeks. There were 21.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in the United States in 2001-02; the highest rate was 29.3 per 1,000 in 1980-81.

The "Jane Roe" of the landmark Roe v. Wade lawsuit, whose real name is Norma McCorvey, later became a strong advocate of the anti-abortion movement. McCorvey claims she became the "pawn" of two young and ambitious lawyers who were looking for a plaintiff who they could use to challenge the Texas state law prohibiting abortion.

In the United States the issue has become deeply politicized: in 2002, 84% of state Democratic platforms supported abortion while 88% of state Republican platforms opposed it. This divergence also led to the (currently defunct) Moral Majority having an increasingly strong role in the Republican Party. This opposition has been extended under the Foreign Assistance Act: in 1973 Jesse Helms introduced an amendment banning the use of aid money to promote abortion overseas, and in 1984 the so-called Mexico City Policy prohibited financial support to any overseas organization that performed or promoted abortions. The "Mexico City Policy" was revoked by Bill Clinton only to be reinstated by George W. Bush. Several items of legislation impacting on abortion, including the Child Custody Protection Bill and the Unborn Victims of Violence Bill, are awaiting Congressional debate (February 2003).

Legislative developments

Since 1995, led by Congressional Republicans, the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have moved several times to pass measures banning the procedure of so-called "partial-birth" abortions. After several long and emotional debates on the issue, such measures passed twice by wide margins, but President Bill Clinton vetoed those bills in April 1996 and October 1997 on the grounds that they did not include health exceptions. Subsequent Congressional attempts at overriding the veto were unsuccessful.

On October 2, 2003, with a vote of 281-142, the House again approved a measure banning the procedure called the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (HR 760). Through this legislation, a doctor could face up to two years in prison and face civil lawsuits for performing such an abortion. A woman who undergoes the procedure cannot be prosecuted under the measure. The measure contains an exemption to save a woman's life; it does not permit the procedure unless her life is threatened. On October 21, 2003, the United States Senate passed the same bill by a vote of 64-34, with a number of Democrats joining in support. The bill was signed by President George W. Bush on November 5, 2003, but a federal judge blocked its enforcement in several state just a few hours after it became public law.

Not the term favored by abortion practitioners, "partial-birth" abortions are often confused with third-trimester abortions, specifically the procedure known by abortion practitioners as intact dilation and extraction (intact D&X). Intact dilation and extraction often involves cases of wanted pregnancies in which the fetus develops hydrocephalus, in which the head of a non-viable fetus may expand to a size of up to 250% of the radius of an adult skull. An attempt to give birth to such a fetus is often fatal for women. Hydrocephalus is usually not discovered until the second trimester, hence it medically requires a late-term abortion.

The American Civil Liberties Union, National Abortion Federation, and other abortion rights groups planned to file lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the 2003 bill. Courts have struck down several similar state statutes.

Anti-abortion activism

In the 1980s and 1990s, many opponents of legal abortion who had become frustrated with the apparent political impossibility of outlawing it turned instead to direct confrontations with abortion providers and women seeking abortions. The organization Operation Rescue carried out organized picketingss, occupations, and blockades of abortion clinics, in which hundreds of anti-abortion activists would surround clinics in an attempt to shut them down.

Operation Rescue went bankrupt after losing a RICO lawsuit challenging its tactics, and many of its tactics were specifically outlawed by the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as the "FACE Act" or "Access Act".[1] This led to a split among anti-abortion activists, with some continuing to picket and provide sidewalk counseling within the limits of the FACE Act, and a small minority turning to violence. The activities of anti-abortion activists were moderated following the 2000 election of President George W. Bush, whose outspoken opposition to abortion gave new hope to political anti-abortion efforts, as well as the highly visible arrests and convictions of several violent anti-abortion extremists.