Over the past half-dozen years, Americans have taken an increasingly liberal attitude toward abortion. Four states-already permit abortion on demand; in the other 46, pressure is building for the easing of restrictive statutes. But the opposition is rallying its forces, too, and in recent months the controversy has become more heated than ever. The legal battles may be nearing an end, however. Last week TIME learned that the Supreme Court has decided to strike down nearly every anti-abortion law in the land. Such laws, a majority of the Justices believe, represent an unconstitutional invasion of privacy that interferes with a woman's right to control her own body.
The historic ruling, upholding a challenge to Georgia's restrictive abortion statute, will permit states to impose only minimal curbs on the right to abortion at will. These might include consent of a physician, licensing of abortion facilities and a ban on late termination of pregnancy. Beyond that, a woman's freedom to end her pregnancy will not be significantly abridged. No decision in the court's history, not even those outlawing public school segregation and capital punishment, has evoked the intensity of emotion that will surely follow this ruling. The pronouncement, ending 13 months of wrangling among the Justices, is certain to be met with passionate resistance by abortion opponents and to stir new controversy across the nation.
The basis for the court's ruling is a 1965 Supreme Court decision that struck down Connecticut's anti-contraception law and recognized for the first time a constitutional right to privacy in family, sexual and other matters. The Justices were also influenced by the 1972 opinion of U.S. District Judge Jon O. Newman that overturned Connecticut's anti-abortion statute. Newman concluded that a fetus is not a person until it is born, and that it has no constitutional rights. Though acknowledging that there are wide differences of opinion about the moment when human existence begins, Newman ruled that the moral certainty of some people "must remain a personal judgment, one that they may follow in their personal lives and seek to persuade others to follow, but a judgment they may not impose upon others by force of law."
No court ruling can settle the ethical questions about abortion. In fact, as legal restraints are removed, the ethical issues become more urgent; every woman must then rely entirely on herself in deciding whether or not to end an unwelcome pregnancy. She may be influenced in her choice by religious and philosophical considerations, by her views on the right of self-determination, or perhaps by her awareness of the social and psychological consequences of abortion.