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Two steps back

Abortion | As pro-lifers march, the Supreme Court deals their cause a rebuke

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

Hundreds of thousands of pro-life marchers descended on Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24, only to get a cold welcome from nature-and a cold shoulder from the Supreme Court.

Braving frigid temperatures and snow-slushy streets, participants in the 32nd annual March for Life headed to the steps of the building where seven justices legalized abortion in 1973. Coats and scarves helped make the day more bearable, as did President Bush's telephoned exhortation: "The America of our dreams, where every child is welcomed in . . . life and protected in law may still be some ways away," he told the crowd gathered on the National Mall. "But even from the far side of the river . . . we can see its glimmerings."

Mr. Bush cited several recent advances, including a ban on partial-birth abortion and a law that recognizes unborn children as victims of violence perpetrated against their mothers. But, he stressed, creating a "culture of life" will require more than just new laws. "We need most of all to change hearts, and that is what we are doing."

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If marchers could see the glimmerings of a better day, however, they were quickly reminded that changing hearts on the Supreme Court will be no easy task. On the same day as the March for Life, the court refused, without comment, to hear two cases dear to the pro-life movement.

Despite a last-ditch appeal by the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the justices let stand a lower court decision that would allow a brain-damaged woman to starve to death. In 2003, Gov. Bush signed a hastily written bill to reinsert Terri Schiavo's feeding tube after a state judge ordered it removed. Dubbed "Terri's Law," the measure was unanimously ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court on the grounds that it violated the separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches.

Ken Connor, a Florida attorney and former head of the Family Research Council, handled the governor's appeal to the Supreme Court. He told WORLD he wasn't surprised by the court's refusal to hear the case, but he was concerned by the message it sent.

"I think it's noteworthy that this case was decided on the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade," he said from his office in the Washington suburbs. "Effectively, Terri Schiavo is being treated as a non-person who does not receive the benefit of the protections provided by the Constitution." In Florida, for instance, accused killers receive independent counsel, a jury trial, and automatic appeal of any death sentence. Ms. Schiavo was denied all those protections.

Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, currently have about a half-dozen motions pending in state courts, but success would depend on a change of heart by at least one judge who has already ruled against them. Barring such a change, Ms. Schiavo could be slowly starved to death within weeks.

With the court refusing to hear a matter of life and death, the marchers in Washington could hardly have been surprised that an issue of symbolism-and millions of dollars-was also brushed aside. South Carolina had asked the nine justices to reconsider an appeals court ruling that the state's "Choose Life" license plates violated the First Amendment because the pro-abortion side was not given a plate of its own.

The court's rebuff means that South Carolina will either have to stop issuing its plates or provide some sort of pro-choice plate, as well.

Ten other states offer "Choose Life" plates, and abortion activists have mounted legal challenges to many of them. The court's action on Monday does not directly affect any of those battles, although a full hearing could have settled the issue once and for all.

Besides being a visible reminder of the abortion issue, "Choose Life" plates are a boon to state adoption services and other groups that offer abortion alternatives. Since Florida, for instance, became the first state to issue the plates in 2000, nearly 50,000 drivers have requested them. The $25 premium for such plates means hundreds of thousands of extra dollars for crisis pregnancy centers and similar organizations throughout the Sunshine State.

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