WASHINGTON (CNS) — To Gerard Bradley, leading constitutional scholar and professor at the University of Notre Dame’s law school, “abortion is the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”

Bradley was one of several speakers from the legal and medical fields who joined activists at the National Press Club in Washington for a conference on “The Future of Roe: Women, Health and Law in the Obama Era,” sponsored by Americans United for Life.

Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 the “Dred Scott of our age,” referring to the 19th-century Supreme Court decision that declared blacks to be noncitizens and made slavery legal in all territories.

The Jan. 24 event at the press club was one of several events held in Washington to mark the 40th anniversary of legalized abortion.

With its Roe decision, and its decision in the companion case Doe v. Bolton, the court legalized abortion virtually on demand.

In that era, the pro-life movement that had developed alongside the movement supporting legalized abortion was completely caught off guard by the “immediate escalation of abortions” that followed the court decision, explained Laura Garcia, a philosophy professor at Jesuit-run Boston College and a veteran in the prolife movement. The rate “more than doubled in six years,” she said.

What it will take to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States, is for the court to take up the question of who is a person and define personhood, said a Notre Dame law professor.

“When you make the price of sex low” and say it has “no weight at all,” the rate of nonmarital sex increases along with the rates of abortion and birth control, added Helen Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. She is the author of recent book titled “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves.”

“Sex is not tennis,” she added. Society needs to “put sex, marriage and (the) well-being of children” in one place again.

Since the 1970s, the prolife movement has changed little from its “good, true and beautiful” message, said Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life.

In what she described as an epic battle of “batgirl against the baby,” the movement supporting legal abortion has had to replace its “coat hanger” pins — symbolizing the end of “unsafe abortions” — with “angel wings” pins, which apparently indicate “it’s complicated.”

“(This) seems more like a Facebook status than a moral argument,” Yoest remarked.

The latest shift in messaging comes at a time when the abortion industry is trying to make abortion as routine as health care and a “reproductive right” as natural to the self as life itself, she said.

This comes as dozens of abortion clinics are less safe than the back-alley clinics of old, according to Yoest.

Another speaker commented on abortions as a growing danger to women’s health.

Dr. Donna Harrison, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, said she was especially worried about an increase in demand for “abortion on demand” drugs. She cited the example of Shippensburg University, Pa., which started stocking vending machines with the “morning-after pill.”

The lack of medical follow-up with women who access the drugs via a vending machine raises serious concerns for women’s health, said Harrison.

The morning-after pill, known as Plan B, uses large doses of birth-control pills to prevent conception up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter sales of Plan B to women 18 and older; three years later a court ruling made it available to women 17 and older without a prescription. Anyone younger still needs a prescription.

Medical abortion available on demand “leaves women untreated,” added Priscilla Coleman, professor of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Notre Dame’s Bradley predicted the future prolife movement will overturn Roe v. Wade. But what it will take, he said, is for the Supreme Court to take up the question of who is a person and define personhood.

“Who counts as a person is (not) like membership to a rotary club,” it is inherent to the very nature of humanity, he continued. Roe never said the “unborn are not persons,” he said, rather the justices tried to nail down who “counts as a person,” he explained.

He cited several current cases that could provide the court with the chance to reconsider the personhood question. For example, an appeal could come from Gerardo Flores of Texas, who was convicted in 2005 of two counts of capital murder for stomping on his girlfriend, who was five months pregnant with twins, to induce an abortion. She miscarried the unborn babies.

One conference speaker on the agenda, Joni Eareckson Tada, founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, could not attend in person, but she sent a videotaped message.

Her organization’s website explains that in 1967 she was “injured in a diving accident at 17 years old, leaving her in a quadriplegic state with minimal use of her hands.”

Despite this, she founded the organization “in defense of the cause of the weak.”

In her prerecorded message she said that while there is a “national competition to see who is more victimized … no one is more exposed than those” who are too small to stand up for themselves.

“All life is worth living,” she said. “Life is worth the battle.”