Ask a pro-life activist what he or she hopes to accomplish, and you’re likely to hear that the law should protect unborn human life in accordance with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Ask a pro-choice activist the same question, and you’re likely to hear about the need to defend Roe v. Wade and the interpretation of constitutional rights it represents. But the shaping of abortion law in the United States during the last forty-five years has rarely involved conflicting rights claims or competing interpretations of the Constitution, nor even the question of whether to ban abortion. Instead, most Supreme Court cases on abortion have focused on abortion access and whether a particular restriction on abortion constitutes an “undue burden” on women who want one.
Likewise, Mary Ziegler’s Abortion and the Law. Whereas previous studies of abortion law have generally focused on high-profile abortion cases that involved competing rights claims—as was especially evident in Roe v. Wade (1973)—Ziegler’s account begins after Roe and concerns itself almost entirely with the hairsplitting minutiae of abortion laws that have been debated before the high court and hammered out in numerous cases over the course of decades. The Court decided, for instance, that requiring a minor to obtain parental consent for an abortion violated the Constitution—but requiring her merely to inform a parent or guardian did not. The Court decided that a state prohibition on partial-birth abortion was unconstitutional because its broad wording might affect other second-trimester abortion techniques, but a more precisely worded federal ban on partial-birth abortion passed constitutional muster. The Court ruled that a Colorado law prohibiting pro-life sidewalk demonstrators from approaching within eight feet of anyone entering or exiting an abortion clinic was constitutional, but a Massachusetts law creating a thirty-five-foot buffer zone around clinic entrances was not. To an outsider, these fine distinctions may have seemed arbitrary, and to a large extent they were, since they depended on split decisions that rarely could be predicted in advance and sometimes were decided by the slimmest of majorities.