Preserving freedom to choose

SOUTH Dakota is for real. It might seem like a far away state that has little relevance to University students, but the state's new law banning almost all abortions has serious implications for every young woman in the United States. The law allows for abortion when the mother's life is endangered, but prohibits all other abortions, even in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother's health. The movement represented by South Dakota's new law has been eroding reproductive rights for decades, and the Supreme Court appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito should make us afraid for the future.

The women of South Dakota are facing that reality as the legal challenges begin. The ban will not take effect unless the Supreme Court upholds the law, but of course, that's exactly the point. Architects of the ban are hoping that Bush's new appointees will vote to overturn the precedent of Roe v. Wade, opening the door for likeminded state legislators to make all abortions illegal in other states.

Considering the social conservatism of our own General Assembly, the young women of Virginia should take this possibility very seriously. Residents of states with solidly pro-choice legislators might not be immediately affected by the overturn of Roe v. Wade, but the Virginia General Assembly routinely considers bills that would restrict the access of women to abortion clinics and even to contraceptives.

It's important to understand that the end of legal abortion would not mean the end of abortions but a return to underground, unregulated clinics and life-threatening attempts by desperate women. We have all seen the coat hanger as a chilling symbol of illegal abortions, but most college students are too young to remember the years before the Roe v. Wade decision.

Ask your mothers and your grandmothers what happened to women before 1973 -- what happened to their female friends or their college roommates when unwanted pregnancies occurred.

Instructions on how to perform an illegal abortion have already circulated online in response to South Dakota's new law. A blogger calling herself Molly Blythe made headlines when she posted a graphic guide for do-it-yourself abortions intended for women who would lose access to legal clinics under a ban. It might be premature to worry about women attempting such a procedure on their own, but the instructions are a reminder of what women will attempt without access to legal clinics.

For years, the abortion issue has rallied the Christian Right in support of the Republican party, butRepublicans might find themselves losing popularity with the wider public if abortion bans become a reality.

While many Americans feel conflicted about late term abortions and abortions for economic reasons, strong majorities support the right to first term abortions and abortions performed to save the life or health of the mother.

Even in South Dakota, there are signs that the public is unhappy with the new law. According to a SurveyUSA poll, the approval rating for South Dakota gov. Mike Rounds dropped from 72 percent to 58 percent after he signed the ban into law.

A national poll conducted by FOX News/Opinion Dynamics found that 59 percent of Americans would oppose a similar ban in their own states.

Yet despite popular support for legal abortions, Democratic leaders have been unwilling to protect women's rights.

Several ostensibly "pro-choice" senators failed women when they had the chance to stop anti-choice nominees from reaching the Supreme Court. In refusing to support a filibuster of Samuel Alito, the Democrats sacrificed women's reproductive rights in order to save themselves from the political fallout of actually standing for something.

These senators should not receive another dime from pro-choice advocacy groups; their professed views are irrelevant when they are unwilling to take risks for women's rights.

Unfortunately, we cannnot count on the United States Congress to protect women's rights. And we can no longer rely on the courts now that the Supreme Court has two nominees from President Bush. The pressure has to come from us. Our leaders need to hear from women who value reproductive rights, and from men who care about the women in their lives. Leaders who fail to protect those rights must be kicked out of office at the state and the national levels because we can no longer afford their lack of action.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.com.

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