College remembers Roe v. Wade's 25th

by Maura Henninger | 2/10/98 6:00am

On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States voted seven to two to prohibit states from interfering with a doctor's medical decision to perform an abortion during a woman's first three months of pregnancy.

But Americans refused to take the court's vote in the Roe v. Wade case as a dictate of morality, and they took sides in what would become arguably the greatest social and political battle of our time.

The decision was not, however, enough to distract Dartmouth students from their midterms. While city dwellers threw bombs and launched protests, students at the College had discussions and wrote editorials.

But students' apathy may have been caused by other current events that eclipsed the court's landmark vote.

The day after the decision, President Nixon announced a cease-fire in Vietnam after 12 years of conflict. This announcement came on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson's death just two days earlier.

"It's been a helluva week for America. Abortion decision. The death of a large man and the historical reflections it requires. The end of the longest war: It's an awful lot to digest in a few days," a columnist wrote in The Dartmouth.

History Professor Jere Daniell suggested that the court's vote did not light the fires of protest at the College perhaps because it occurred so soon after the coeducation decision.

In addition, he said, in 1973 the anti-abortion movement was not as combative as it is today.

"It was not a period of time when you had the strong movement toward a public criticism of abortion -- the visibility of anti-abortion activists was a later phenomenon," Daniell said.

Even today, however, there is little contention between pro-life and pro-choice students at the College.

Activism, but no debates

The two advocacy groups on campus, the Dartmouth Coalition for Life and Students for Choice, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision this term.

Dartmouth Students for Choice commemorated the decision by sponsoring a luncheon with Planned Parenthood of New England. The luncheon featured a discussion between author John Irving and Alan Guttmacher, a Vermont physician and member of the board of Alan Guttmacher, Inc., a reproductive health think-tank.

Also to acknowledge the anniversary, the DCFL sponsored a speech last week by Russell Hittinger, Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa Law School, with the support of several other student organizations.

Hittinger addressed myths about abortion resulting from the Roe vs. Wade decision. He took a legalistic rather than a moralistic stance in an attempt to diffuse the contentiousness of the subject.

Right now, according to DCFL member Christine Percheski '01, the group is working on awareness. For example, on Jan. 22, the group had a candlelight vigil for the unborn. In addition, a recent poster campaign urged people to question abortion.

For Valentine's Day, the DCFL will sell roses, the proceeds from which will go to a crisis pregnancy center.

Students for Choice Vice President Jojo Blaxall '98 explained that the activities of the group, which meets twice a month in the Rockefeller Center, depend on the term. While dinners with professors or visitors vary in frequency, they do some sort of awareness activity each term, such as host a table in the Collis Center or Thayer Dining Hall.

"It's basically about getting our name out there and trying to make people aware of issues of reproductive rights," Blaxall said.

Last fall, Students for Choice hosted a symposium about different perspectives of reproductive rights. Frances Kissling of Catholics for Choice was the keynote speaker.

Although the two groups each host their own events, they do not often debate.

Kevin Walsh '98, president of the Dartmouth Coalition for Life, said his organization tries to avoid confrontation because it is counterproductive to stir up debate rather than help and educate people.

Dartmouth Students for Choice, is not looking for any debates with the College's pro-life organization, either. Blaxall said the group has talked about the usefulness of participating in such a debate.

"If the two groups can't relate, is it worth even having a debate," she said. "Can you have a debate if people are coming at it from different sides?"

Medical and moral questions

While students at the College discuss whether to confront the issue of abortion, doctors in training at the Dartmouth Medical School find themselves face-to-face with the issue during their second year of study -- the time when they will take their seats for their first abortion lectures, said Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology Dr. David Nierenberg, who heads the second year program.

The medical school's responsibility, he said, is to teach the medical student to be sensitive to the preferences of each patient and to remain informed about all the therapies that would apply to a particular patient with a particular problem.

At DMS there are four hours in a second-year course devoted to human reproduction. Two hours are spent on chemical contraception, another hour is spent on family planning and one is on abortion.

In the one-hour lecture on abortion, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology Dr. Joan Barthold said the class talks "both about first trimester abortions and a little bit about second trimester abortions. But it's all the basic knowledge, educational rather than instructive."

Actual procedural techniques are not taught until the residency stage of a medical students' career, he said.

But Nierenberg said a students' ethics may come into conflict with his or her education.

"What the medical student also must come to terms with are his or her beliefs, which is tricky in the fractious climate surrounding abortion right now," Nierenberg said.

Fewer doctors and hospitals are willing to offer traditional abortions. While the passage of Roe v. Wade was a landmark event for OB-GYN practices, a spree of fatal shootings of abortion doctors in 1993 have scared off many young doctors interested in performing abortions.

This situation has left abortions to basically the same doctors who pioneered it 25 years ago, according to an article in the New York Times Magazine.

The right to privacy, found implicitly in the Bill of Rights, was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy," Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in a majority opinion.

Since the Roe vs. Wade ruling, more than 28 million legal abortions have been performed in the US.

The abortion rate has decreased sharply in recent years as new sources of help have sprung up for the growing numbers of pregnant young women deciding to keep their babies, according to the Washington Post.

But the debate surrounding abortion rages on.

According to current polls, public opinion swings back and forth between disgust at the procedures used to perform abortions and insistence that a woman has the right to one.

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