Not since the doomed Robert Bork has there been a Supreme Court nominee with such a clear record of opposition to abortion. And yet, as Samuel Alito moves closer to Senate confirmation this week, the rumble that many expected over his position on the issue has failed to materialize. That in itself tells us something about the nature of the abortion wars today.
Listening just to the alarms of abortion-rights groups on the one hand and the cheers of opponents on the other, you could come away with the impression that the fate of Alito's nomination will determine whether abortion remains available in this country. That is not what is at stake. Alito's confirmation would not produce the votes sufficient to overturn the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights throughout the country. And even if Roe is reversed in the future, states will be free to preserve abortion rights, and many almost surely will. Today the tussle is over not whether abortion will exist but how. In that respect, the terms of the debate have caught up with the public's attitude toward the issue: polls consistently show that most people in the U.S. want abortion to be legal; they just don't want it to be easy.
That sentiment has been expressed in a variety of measures passed by legislatures since a 1989 Supreme Court ruling gave states more leeway to restrict abortion. It's a reality the Supreme Court reaffirmed just last week. In a narrowly written but unanimous decision authored by Sandra Day O'Connor, the high court backed away from directly interfering with a New Hampshire law. The Justices said a lower court should not have struck down a parental-notification requirement entirely, and ordered the judges to come up with a more limited version that would protect the health of girls seeking abortions in emergency situations.
On the eve of the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, TIME took a look at the situation in the state of Missouri, where the 1989 case originated, to explore how the shifting battlefield affects the making of abortion law and to examine the impact of state restrictions on women who find themselves unhappily pregnant.
Consider, for example, the case of a 22-year-old unmarried woman we will call Lisa, who missed her period last November. Lisa, who was managing a restaurant, decided to have an abortion. Her timing could have been better. Just the month before, Springfield's only abortion provider, which had been operating five days a week just 15 minutes from her home, closed its doors. "The environment here in Missouri is so hostile," its administrator told the local paper. With four abortion doctors left in the state, compared with 10 as recently as 1996, Lisa's closest alternative turned out to be the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, an eight-hour round trip by car. That meant Lisa, who has no car, not only had to ask a friend to drive her but also had to come up with an excuse for missing two days of work, because she was afraid to tell her boss the truth. Two weeks later, she had to make the trip again, for a follow-up exam that lasted about five minutes. She figures the whole episode--the clinic's bill, the prescription for the abortion drug mifepristone, gasoline, food and incidentals--cost her a little more than $600. "It was all very frustrating," Lisa told TIME a month after her abortion. "I only recently paid back everyone I borrowed money from."