Reagan’s Abortion Quandary

Women's Reproductive Rights a Long-Running Issue

<b>#JOINTHEDISSENT:</b>  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in <i>Hobby Lobby</i> formed a touchstone for Santa Barbarans, including Jennifer Holland (right), protesting the Supreme Court ruling.
Paul Wellman (file)

SIGN IT OR NOT? Ronald Reagan had only been California governor for six months when he faced a perplexing decision: whether to sign a bill legalizing abortion in certain cases.

By all accounts, the man known for decisive action and iron-clad principles didn’t know what to do. He got advice from all sides, including conferring with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, who, as you can imagine, was against the bill. His staff was divided. Reagan was beset with soul-searching.

Barney Brantingham

The Therapeutic Abortion Act was aimed, according to its backers, at reducing the number of backroom abortions, which made sense. Or a risky trip to Tijuana, like the one made by a young Santa Barbaran I knew in the early 1960s to end a pregnancy that would have devastated her old-world family. She went on to a happy marriage and three children.

The law allowed the procedure in cases of rape or incest or where there was a substantial risk to the physical and mental health of the woman. After Reagan reluctantly signed the law, it resulted in an estimated one million abortions, many under the mental-health provision.

Few dreamed it would have such an impact. Even its backers were shocked. Reagan was said to have very much regretted signing the bill and blamed doctors for interpreting the provisions too liberally. When he ran for president, he made sure he was an ardent pro-lifer and as a result got backing from the anti-abortion movement.

Abortion was not yet the hot-button issue it is today. Then came the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1973, Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal throughout the land. But the religious right soon began the battle to overturn the ruling.

Today, it’s often said that Roe v. Wade is one Supreme Court vote away from being overturned. As much as conservatives on the court apparently would love to overturn Roe v. Wade, it seems to court-watchers more likely to die first from the old Chinese torture, death by a thousand cuts by lower courts. In old China, it wasn’t a case of tiny little slices cut from the victim’s body but of large hunks hacked off until the poor victim died a horrible death.

In the last few years, Republican legislatures in dozens of states have enacted laws aimed at restricting abortions by forcing clinics to close. A favorite tactic is to require that providers have admitting rights at a nearby hospital, something that can be almost impossible to obtain. Catch-22.

Meanwhile, various anti-abortion cases and limitations on women’s access to contraception are in line, heading to the Supreme Court, which has made it clear that when they arrive, it’s ready and willing to hack more flesh off Roe v. Wade.

Two cases in point came last week, with the Hobby Lobby ruling and when the court tossed out Massachusetts’ bubble law, which required protesters to give clinic clients 35 feet of space to enter without enduring intimidation, harassment, or worse. The fate of Santa Barbara’s eight-foot bubble remains in doubt. City Attorney Ariel Calonne is optimistic that it can survive legal attack. I have my doubts and have a bet with optimistic Nick Welsh on it. (I hope he wins.)

Under Hobby Lobby, the court ruled for the first time that a for-profit, closely held corporation not only has got that old-time religion but can opt out of Obamacare’s contraception insurance requirements.

Who knows what else the court will pull out of its Pandora’s box as new anti-abortion cases arrive? Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for one, is outraged at what the Hobby Lobby case may spawn.

Ginsburg is 81, and there’s speculation that she’ll retire (she shows no signs of wanting to) before President Obama leaves office after the 2016 election, allowing him to name a liberal replacement. If he can.

When I talked to constitutional authority Laurence Tribe, who spoke to a full house when he visited the New Vic two weeks ago, he predicted that there was no way in hell that Obama could get a nominee through the Senate. “Even God couldn’t get confirmed,” he told one interviewer.

But one Santa Barbara attorney I quizzed was confident that Obama can find someone. Is there someone bland enough, without a trace of ideology, who can score a World Cup goal at the Senate?

Don’t bet a case of Guinness on it.


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