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Brooke Lierman of the Maryland House of Delegates, right, and her children join others as they march to the U.S. Supreme Court during a Mother's Day rally in support of abortion rights on May 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C.jemal countess/Getty Images

This week virtually every American political figure is rushing to have an answer to the question the next generation will ask: What did you do in the Great Abortion War of 2022?

A similar question nagged the successors of the generation that followed the Civil War, which, like abortion, had religious and ethical elements. (Theodore Roosevelt was scarred by the knowledge that his father, whom he otherwise worshipped as “the best man I ever knew,” didn’t fight in the conflict.) An analogous question haunts the successors of the Vietnam era. (Those who fled to Canada to avoid the combat in Southeast Asia are regarded by some as renegades or cowards and others as moral heroes.)

There are no conscientious objectors in the abortion war that broke out with the leaking last week of a draft Supreme Court decision overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which provided for broad abortion rights.

“Americans are prone to conflict,” said Amy Dru Stanley, an historian who is chair of the University of Chicago’s America in World Civilizations program. “We have been called a ‘disputatious people,’ but rarely in American history have we witnessed a legal contest ignite such immediate and intense political and cultural warfare.”

On the right there are entreaties to the five justices who have signed on to the Samuel Alito Jr. draft to hold firm to their positions. On the left there are passionate protests outside the Supreme Court freighted with hopes that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. will peel away at least one vote by persuading a justice to modify rather than overturn the precedent set nearly a half-century ago. Seldom has there been so swift, so passionate, and perhaps so futile an outside campaign to shape the inside deliberations of the most independent and inscrutable institution of the country.

The abortion issue took centre stage on the Sunday political television shows. Four Republican and three Democratic former (and perhaps future) presidential candidates weighed in. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota appeared on two broadcasts and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California was on Face the Nation.

“Here we are on Mother’s Day, a week where the court has slapped women in the face in terms of disrespect for their judgments about the size and timing of their families,” Ms. Pelosi said. “Women should be respected to make their own judgments with their family, their doctor, their God.”

Nearly two-thirds of Americans want the Roe v. Wade provisions to remain in effect, according to a poll YouGov conducted for CBS after the Alito draft became public.

The draft decision, if promulgated by the high court before it adjourns sometime in the next six weeks, would delegate most abortion questions to the 50 states, some of which already have imposed restrictions on the procedure. The result is a likely abortion desert that, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, would cover half the states, including every state of the Old Confederacy with the exception of Florida, though last month Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely Republican presidential candidate, signed legislation prohibiting all abortions after 15 weeks of gestation.

More than a dozen states have passed so-called “trigger” legislation that would ban abortion if the court overturns Roe. GOP Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma this month signed legislation making it a criminal offence to assist a person to receive an abortion. Seven states, all on the East or West coast, plus Hawaii, do not have major obstacles to abortion access, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. The principal next battlefield: Michigan, with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature and a purple profile, having sided with Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.

The Alito draft prompted a call to sidestep the court by “codifying Roe” – enshrining abortion rights through legislation passed by Congress. While the slogan swiftly became a prominent part of the response by pro-choice supporters, it may be more rallying cry than legal reality.

“The rhetoric of ‘codifying Roe’ is very powerful, conveying the choice to end a pregnancy needs to be protected,” Linda McClain, a Boston University School of Law expert on civil rights law and feminist legal theory, said in an interview. “If Congress really did codify Roe there would be a lot less room for state regulation of abortion. But the emphasis now is to make sure there are no obstacles in the path of people seeking abortions, to assure that states cannot place an ‘undue burden’ on people’s choices. Any regulation would be to ensure the health or safety of the patient.”

That is why the effort would technically not codify Roe but instead would be to send the Women’s Health Protection Act to the desk of President Joe Biden, who almost surely would sign it. That legislation would enshrine the doctrine set out in the high court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which bans regulations imposing an “undue burden” on abortion choices, which the majority defined as a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability.”

The Women’s Health Protection Act has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, where it failed a procedural vote in late February.

The legislation is unlikely to win the 60 votes required to bring it to a Senate vote – and it may not even have the support of a majority in a chamber with a 50-50 divide. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is considered an opponent of abortion-rights legislation and Democratic Senator Bob Casey long has opposed abortion but last week expressed “serious concerns about what overturning almost 50 years of legal precedent will mean for women in states passing near or total bans on abortion.” The two Republican abortion-rights supporters, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, did not support the Democrats in the February procedural vote.

The Alito draft created an updraft of urgency, with the result that political activists and political figures alike are mobilizing to have an answer to the question first posed by the 1915 “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” posters that remain an iconic image from the First World War in both Great Britain and Canada.

“This has activated people on both sides in a visceral way,’’ said Christine Whelan, the director of the relations and equality initiative at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It makes sense that it has, given the nature of the topic. And yet the legal issues are less emotional than the implications and reverberations involved. The combination of legality and emotions is a Molotov cocktail.”

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