The attack on Roe 

"Why aren't you writing about the Patriot Act?" a reader asked recently.

We could fill this newspaper every week with worries and protests about the Patriot Act... and the environment... and Iraq... and now Iran....

(I learned long ago to watch for the little hints that Bush-Cheney and company toss out in their speeches. Was Condi Rice alerting us recently that we're starting to work on regime change in Iran? Sure she was. We're preparing to foment rebellion, funding "democracy movements." The problem is, as Connie Bruck spelled out in a recent New Yorker article, we can't decide which "democracy movement" will bring about the change we want. We know far too little about what's going on in Iran to make an intelligent decision. That didn't stop us in Iraq, though, and it won't stop us now. Forward, to a democratic world!)

And... let's see: what else to worry about? How about abortion rights? Opponents have been whittling them away, bit by bit, for years. Now, South Dakota has decided to go for broke, outlawing nearly all abortions in that state, in the hopes that a challenge will reach the Supreme Court.

It's not certain that there are five votes on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe; it's hard to predict what Justice Kennedy will do. But if the president gets one more vacancy to fill, overturning Roe seems a certainty. About all we can do about it is pray that Justice Stevens, rumored to be considering retiring, will outlast Bush. (And that the Democrats will get their act together and return us to two-party government.)

Opposition to abortion rights is based on complicated things, to be sure: deeply held religious beliefs, attitudes toward sex, attitudes toward women.

But let's be clear:

• Unintended pregnancies do happen. They happen when women are raped. They happen when women forget to take proper precautions, or when their birth-control method fails (and nothing except abstinence or surgery is failsafe). Unintended pregnancies happen when women rely on their husband or lover to use a condom and he either does not, or it fails. Or when women think they're in a "safe" time of the month. Or they are young and naïve and trusting.

• Outlawing abortion will not change people's sexual behavior.

• Outlawing abortion will not end abortion. It will simply return us to the days before Roe, when desperate women took desperate measures, seeking abortions from illegal, often incompetent providers. It is not a myth that women suffered great damage from those abortions. It is not a myth that some women died from those abortions.

("In 1969," says a Planned Parenthood report, "one year before New YorkState legalized abortion, complications from abortions accounted for 23 percent of all pregnancy-related admissions to municipal hospitals in New York City.")

Outlawing abortion will harm women. This is not an issue forced on America by feminist extremists, as some opponents try to label it. It is not an anti-family issue. It is a women's health issue, a life issue.

Opponents to abortion rights have stayed focused since Roe, giving money and energy to their cause, writing letters, getting involved in politics. Many abortion-rights supporters have been complacent, and we are seeing the result.

We have nearly three more years with George Bush in the White House, but there are important Congressional elections this year. Abortion rights should be high on the list of concerns raised with the candidates. More important, abortion-rights supporters must wake up to the threat to Roe and start acting with the energy, commitment, and staying power that abortion opponents have hadfor years.

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