Every four years, defenders of abortion rights proclaim that the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs on the outcome of the presidential election.
This year, they might be right.
Through most of 1990s and until recently, the Supreme Court had a solid 6-3 majority in favor of upholding the right of a woman to choose abortion. But the margin has shrunk to one, now that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has retired and been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito Jr.
And Justice John Paul Stevens, a leader of the narrow majority for abortion rights, is 88 years old.
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“Clearly, Roe is on the line this time,” says Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen, formerly a lawyer for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “It is quite clear they have four votes against it. If the next president appoints one more, the odds are it will be overruled.”
Some advocates worry that the perennial cries of “Roe is falling” has had the effect of muting such claims.
“What we find scary is that people don't understand what's at stake,” says Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way. “In the next four years, one to as many as three Supreme Court justices may step down, and they all will come from the liberal end of the court.”
But that doesn't mean abortion or the fate of the Roe decision is a rallying cry on the campaign trail; candidates rarely mention them.
The abortion issue is enormously important to the base of both parties, political strategists say, but it is a touchy and difficult matter to raise with an audience of swing voters and those who are undecided.
“People are conflicted about it,” said Peter Fenn, a veteran Democratic strategist. “If you are campaigning in Scranton (Pa.), you want to make the lunch-bucket argument. When the economy is driving the race, you don't want to ignite the culture wars.”
On the Republican side, Kenneth Khachigian, a California attorney and a campaign adviser to President Reagan, said abortion had become a key issue in the primary races but not in the general election. “It is a motivating factor at the grass-roots level,” he said.
When Sen. John McCain was considering his choices for a running mate, conservative activists threatened a rebellion at the GOP convention in St. Paul if he chose a supporter of abortion rights. McCain galvanized his support with conservative activists when he chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest.