By Jenny Neyman
In the last 40 years, a lot has changed in the abortion debate. The specific issues being argued have gone through different iterations, the battlefields have cropped up in various states, the players at the forefront have retired, passed the baton or even switched sides. Even the lexicon of the discussion has changed, as with Planned Parenthood recently announcing that it would no longer use the term “pro-choice.”
Yet, some things have remained very much the same. First and foremost, the U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision in Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973, still stands, dictating that a women’s right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, trumping states’ decisions on the matter.
And another thing that hasn’t changed is that abortion is still very much a current events issue.
On Jan. 22, Bob Bird, of Nikiski, stood on a busy street corner in Kenai waving anti-abortion signs, as he has done every anniversary of the Roe decision since 1984. Some years it’s at the “Y” intersection in Soldotna. Others, like this year, he and fellow abortion protestors tromped back and forth through the slushy snow at the intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Bridge Access Road, chosen for its high volume of traffic on a weekday afternoon, and also because of its proximity to the office of the only doctor on the central Kenai Peninsula who performs medical abortion procedures.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Bird, a social studies teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School and former candidate for the U.S. Senate. He plans to continue protesting until change comes.
Though he notes that some change has already come, he said, pointing to the Jan. 14, 2013, cover story of Time magazine, with the headline, “40 years ago, abortion-rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.”
“The abortion rate has gone down, the influence of Planned Parenthood has come down, even the pro-choice movement wants to switch slogans,” Bird said. “So I think, like (Winston) Churchill said, ‘This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.’”
Bird comes at his stance against abortion from his religious and moral beliefs, but his most vocal platform against Roe is one of opposition to “overreaching federal authority,” he said. Bird is an active supporter of nullification — the stance that a state has the right to nullify federal laws that the state deems unconstitutional. Abortion, Bird said, falls in that category, and he believes that the federal government has no business legislating social issues, particularly over the top of states’ right to do so.
“At some point I think enough people have realized abortions didn’t solve the problems. The courts didn’t end the controversy. Social issues should be handled on a state-by-state basis,” Bird said.
There’s no foretelling what Alaska would decide were that authority left up to states. On one hand, abortion was legal in Alaska before Roe. On the other, recent legal action has installed roadblocks to access to abortion, such as the parental notification ballot initiative that requires at least one parent to be notified before a minor child can obtain an abortion, or else for a judge to bypass the requirement in certain circumstances. The law went into effect in 2010 and was upheld by an Alaska Superior Court judge in 2012.
“I think it’s best left to the local level,” Bird said. “I have faith that whatever Alaska decides will be different than what Roe versus Wade permits.”
He also has faith that the debate is changing. For one thing, people’s stomach for partial-birth abortions has turned, and the anti-abortion camp is diversifying, still holding the religiously and socially conservative, as well as people who oppose abortion for legal, political or civil rights arguments. It used to be that the anti-abortionists often were charged with not caring about the babies or mothers and what their lives would be like once forced into birth, but that’s less and less the case, Bird said.And Bird said that he sees the nature of feminism changing — no longer is it the movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which so vehemently pushed for abortion rights. Bird said that he sees the younger generation of women being more like what he calls “the original feminists” of the country’s youth.
“The new generation is looking like the original feminism,” Bird said. “Susan B. Anthony — I love having her on the dollar. She denounced abortion as a way for men to degrade women. I think this generation of young people, whether they are religious or not, are not the ’60s and ’70s women. I think they’re the ones who realize, ‘My goodness, I’m lucky I didn’t get aborted.’”
The others joining Bird were there for various reasons. Laura Burke’s 10 kids helping hold anti-abortion signs were a direct underscore to her belief in the sanctity of human life.
Dr. Steve Hileman, an ER doctor at Central Peninsula Hospital, said that, for him, abortion is a civil rights issue, and a difficult one, at that.
“It’s a hard issue. I’m a doctor, I take care of people who face this all the time. I try not to be judgmental, but I think it’s important that people take a stand for what’s right,” Hileman said.
He said that he thinks the nature of the debate has changed over the years, with more room for discussion, rather than diatribes.
“I’d like to think that people are more willing to discuss it without being angry about it. I’m not sure that I see any legal solution to it, but I don’t think conversion is an external that can be directed by law, either way. So I’m mostly here just because I want people to think about it. It’s a matter of conscience,” he said.
For Nancy Whiting, of Nikiski, the issue is moral as well as political.
“I believe that life begins at conception. It’s been shown that a baby’s heartbeat begins just a few weeks after conception, and so I view abortion as killing a life,” she said. “And I agree with Bob that the federal government and the Supreme Court don’t have the constitutional right to interfere with social issues. The people have the right to decide, and the states have the rights after that. The federal government really has very few rights, and I think they’ve overstepped into a lot of areas that are not their business.
“I feel very strongly about life and liberty and to pursue happiness. I believe in the Constitution. And it begins with life. I think this abortion issue has to do with the value of life, and when we don’t value life and when our children are raised in a society that doesn’t value life from the beginning, I think that’s causing a lot of societal ills,” Whiting said.