Jan. 22 is the 34th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which ruled that state laws barring abortion violate the constitutional right to privacy. Opposition to the court’s decision has been grist for the right-wing political mill for three decades and became a pillar in the Bush/ultra-right seizure of power in 2000.

Debate on a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices generated passions and, at its most vitriolic, attacks on women’s clinics and murder of doctors who provided professional medical services including abortion.

The plus side to this debate is that there has been a public shift toward greater tolerance of differing religious and philosophical beliefs, a cornerstone of democracy.

Evidence of a change in the impact of the abortion debate is the victory of Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell over pro-life Republican Lynn Swann last fall. The abortion issue in the fifth largest state has kept Republicans, including former Sen. Rick Santorum, in office for some residents’ lifetimes. But Rendell’s victory was resounding — 61 percent of the vote — in a state that led the country in enacting some of the most repressive anti-abortion laws 34 years ago.

Other indications are the growing number of religious leaders who focus less on abortion and more on ending the Iraq war, raising money and volunteering to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and campaigning for environmental stewardship and addressing global warming.

Even some of the anti-abortion marchers in Washington Jan. 22 may have carried a sign for peace or supporting the rights of immigrant workers.

Women’s rights have always been hotly contested and hard won, including the right to privacy. Reproductive rights — control of one’s body, determination of one’s destiny — have been an age-old struggle. For 34 years, a host of women’s rights organizations have met this challenge courageously.

Related to the abortion debate is opposition to stem cell research, a major issue in this weekend’s anti-abortion events. The new House of Representatives passed legislation allowing federal funding for the vital research. Several “pro-life” Democrats and Republicans voted for this measure — another victory for science over superstition; another step for progress.