CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of a landmark change in America. In 1973, in the far-reaching Roe v. Wade case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that American women and girls have a basic human right to choose whether to terminate pregnancies in early months of gestation. Politicians and police can't impose a choice on them.
From that day forward, doctors and women no longer could be jailed for halting early pregnancies.
A fundamentalist backlash erupted, calling itself the "pro-life" movement. Many rural state legislatures passed restrictions to coerce or hamper women and their clinics and physicians. A few fanatics went so far as to kill involved doctors and nurses. America became the only place suffering "pro-life murder."
These opponents contend that fertilized eggs are people. They seem to care more about the eggs than about desperate teenage girls.
Women's groups mobilized in a counter "pro-choice" movement. Both sides have waged a fierce emotional social battle for four decades.
But morality keeps evolving, and the pro-life steamroller slowly is running out of steam. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that 70 percent of Americans want to preserve the historic 1973 court ruling. A Pew poll found that 63 percent agree, while only 29 want it overturned -- more than two-to-one support women's right to choose.
Pew pollsters found that 53 percent now agree that the hot-button issue "is not that important, compared to other issues." This ratio has risen dramatically since 2006, when only 32 percent agreed.
Among Americans under 30, fewer than half knew what the Roe decision was about. The rising generation cares little about yesterday's turbulent fights.
The Pew survey found that only white evangelicals want Roe overturned, by a skimpy 53 percent margin. Most mainline Protestants, Catholics and black churchgoers all want women to retain the right to choose. White evangelicals dominate in West Virginia, so the anti-choice element is stronger here.
A national group, Advocates for Youth, says one-third of all female Americans halt pregnancies at some point in their lives. To mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the organization issued a book titled One in Three: These Are Our Stories.
In the book, 40 different women recount how they struggled, agonized and finally chose to end pregnancies -- and how the choice affected their lives.
Nobody thinks this choice is fun, or that it should be entered frivolously. But it must remain a basic right of women.
Overturning Roe v. Wade would plunge America back to brutal days when many desperate girls died needlessly. It's fortunate that support for an overturn is fading.