Abortion Debate: Right to Life Spokesman This week we're hearing from both sides about where the abortion debate is headed in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling backing a federal ban on a procedure opponents refer to as partial-birth abortion.
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Abortion Debate: Right to Life Spokesman

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Abortion Debate: Right to Life Spokesman

Abortion Debate: Right to Life Spokesman

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This week, we're talking about what happens next in the debate over abortion. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on one controversial abortion procedure. That decision seemed to vindicate a strategy of anti-abortion advocates, a strategy of chipping away at abortions rights a little bit at the time.

The decision also energized activists on both sides, and we've been listening to them. Yesterday, we spoke with Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights. And today we turn to Douglas Johnson. He's legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee and, as you can guess from the title, on the other side of this debate. Welcome to the program.

Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (Legislative Director, National Right to Life Committee): It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: Does the Supreme Court decision come out in such a way that it may give you a basis for further challenges to other forms of abortion, or give you a basis for further restrictions if you can get them?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's clear that there are still at least five votes on the Supreme Court in favor of the core holdings of Roe v. Wade. In summary, that says that the states and Congress must allow abortion for any reason up until the time the child can survive independently of the mother, so called viability.

And even after that, that abortion may not be banned if it's justified by some health reason. So that remains regrettably in place. However, there is some encouraging language in the decision that should give encouragement to the legislators who are pursuing other types of regulation.

For example, there are already nine states that have enacted bills to require the abortionist to offer the woman an opportunity to view an ultrasound before she proceeds. I think you'll see more states adopting that type of legislation.

INSKEEP: Is there something in the Supreme Court decision that makes it more likely, in your view, that that requirement would withstand scrutiny?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. The majority opinion talks about the important government and societal interest and the woman having all of the information, and that includes information about how the abortion is to be performed, what the abortion does to the unborn child and so forth. And I think that bodes well for these ultrasound full disclosure bills.

Another example would be four states have already enacted laws that require at a defined point in pregnancy that the abortionist give the woman certain information about the likely capacity of her unborn child to experience pain. I think you'll see more states looking at that. And, indeed, there is a bill in Congress as well that would impose such a requirement nationally after 20 weeks.

INSKEEP: It was said of the battle against what was described as partial birth abortion that it was a well-chosen political issue. It was very hard for Republicans or Democrats to vote against these restrictions in large numbers. Do you think there are other ways to chip away at Roe vs. Wade that have that same kind of political appeal?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think that the types of regulations that many legislatures are pursuing with respect to allowing the woman the opportunity to see the ultrasound, requiring the abortionist to give her that opportunity.

And there's another example: More and more states are enacting laws that recognize the human status of the unborn child in legal context other than abortion. Thirty four states have now enacted what we call unborn victim laws.

INSKEEP: Saying that killing a pregnant woman is double murder, for example?

Mr. JOHNSON: For example. What these laws actually do is recognize the unborn child as a second victim of such crimes. And since the year 2004, we also have a federal law that recognizes the unborn child as a full second victim when he or she is injured or killed or on the commission of a violent federal crime.

We think this is an important principle. It does not bear directly on the practice of abortion, but it certainly does reflect the societal value that we think is properly put on these unborn members of the human family.

INSKEEP: How do you oppose the so-called freedom of choice acts basically saying that if there's ever a Supreme Court ruling, abortion will still immediately be legal in this particular state?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's something, of course, we oppose. Some states have adopted these things, and I would hope in the future that as more people become aware of some of the parameters of abortion practice in this country that some of those laws would be revisited.

INSKEEP: This is something that you've been involved in personally for well over a quarter century. When you think long-term, how far are you thinking?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I've gotten pretty much out of the business about making predictions, you know. There have been some junctures over the past 30 years where both sides agreed the Supreme Court was about to do this or about to do that, and those predictions have often fallen short of what's actually developed.

So in the pro-life movement it's common to draw an analogy from the experience of a British member of parliament during the 19th century named William Wilberforce, who spent his entire political career fighting to end the slave trade. His initial victories were quite incremental.

I think they were able to ban the manacles and chains at one point and people said that that was a small thing. But each debate, each element in the debate made people more aware of the core issue, and ultimately the slave trade was banned.

INSKEEP: Mr. Johnson, thanks very much.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's been a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Douglas Johnson is legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And our conversations on this subject continue tomorrow. That's when we'll speak with an ethicist about how advances in science affect the debate over abortion.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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