Forty Years Later, Why I Still Support Roe v. Wade
Forty years ago, the historic Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade changed my life for the better. Yes, it made it legal for me to have an abortion, no matter what state I lived in. But more than that, it made me feel that my life as a young woman was valued, that I had a right, in private, to make the most monumental decision I would ever make: whether to continue a pregnancy.
I never did have to confront that difficult decision. But if I had, I know I would have made the right one. The right one for me.
Even now, it’s hard for me to convey how revolutionary Roe was for me and for my generation. Even now, despite far better birth control methods than we had then, millions of women every year have unplanned pregnancies, most of them poor. (A fact I will get to later.)
Imagine what it was like in 1973. For girls sex was fraught with risk, shame and fear. If you got pregnant it was your problem. We had no Google. We had no websites where teen girls could discreetly ask about ways to avoid pregnancy and have our questions answered about sex. Lord knows there certainly wasn’t any “Girls,” where we could see our confusion over sex and relationships brilliantly played out on television and chat about it on Facebook with our friends.
Back then I would have been mortified to ask a guy, “Do you have a condom?” much less watch to see that he put it on correctly. Sex was impulsive, because if you planned to have sex, well, that meant you were a slut. We didn’t know anything about date rape because there wasn’t a word for it then. Needless to say, we did not go around shouting about our vaginas. (Though sometime in the early 70’s, the late Nora Ephron did write a hilarious column about groups of young women gathering to specifically look at their vaginas with a mirror and speculum.)
Remarkably, some of these prehistoric attitudes about women and sex have barely changed. Before Roe, the options for a girl who accidentally got pregnant or had a dangerous pregnancy were exceedingly bleak. For those who don’t know, this video tells the stories of five women pre-Roe. It is heartbreaking.
I often think of my father, who was a doctor. He was a conservative southerner and a life-long Republican. We did not agree on much. But if I were to become pregnant, and if that pregnancy were to threaten to my health, or even if it didn’t, he would have no more tolerated a Paul Ryan or a Bob McDonnell or any other self-serving politician dictating anything about my pregnancy than he would have tolerated missing his Sunday golf game. He would have staunchly opposed any legislative efforts on abortion that interfered with the doctor-patient relationship. (For that reason, I’m sure he would have railed against Obamacare.)
So where are we on abortion rights today?
Just last week we learned from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that most Americans under 30 don’t know that Roe v. Wade was about abortion. While 62 percent of men and women did know what the landmark Supreme Court decision concerned, 41 percent of Americans under 30 thought it dealt with the death penalty, the environment or couldn’t say.
This would seem terribly discouraging, except for a couple of things. Would you have been able to name a single Supreme Court case when you were 23, or even 26? Especially given how severely uninformed American high-school students are about law and civics? I thought so. But just because Roe doesn’t ring a bell, doesn’t mean young people don’t know that abortion is legal. Based on my daughter and son and their sprawling network of friends in their 20s, I’d bet that the majority do.
But the real question is, do Americans want to get rid of Roe v. Wade? Last week Planned Parenthood announced they’re phasing out the term "pro-choice." Was this an admission that they’re losing the fight? No, but what it does reflect is how ambivalent Americans are about the terms pro-choice and pro-life because they don’t consider how complex abortion is. Planned Parenthood found this out after commissioning a poll. But hasn’t this been true all along?
Author and former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen made this same point nearly 15 years ago:
“The words we use to talk about abortion are among the most unsatisfactory in any public dialogue,” she wrote. “Both pro-life and pro-choice are oversimplifications, and nothing about this issue is simple.”
Americans also feel pretty much about abortion rights the way they have ever since Roe. They don't like abortion, but they also see the need for it. The Pew study found that 63 percent of Americans believe that Roe should not be completely overturned, while only 29 percent felt believe that it should be.
Is this because most Americans know someone who’s had an abortion? And view the issue as less a cause, and more as a person? Probably. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion by age 45. And contrary to what anti-abortion activists assert with their inflammatory signs and rhetoric, some 90% of abortions occur in the first trimester of pregnancy.
This chart from Guttmacher has some other revealing facts. Some might surprise you: Nearly 70 percent of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged, and six in 10 already have a child. The majority of women who have abortions, nearly 55 percent, also pay for them out of their own pocket.
So let’s bust the myth right now that poor women are having abortions on demand paid for the government. The 1976 Hyde Amendment put a stop to that.
What is true is that it’s getting harder for women to access their legal right to abortion because of increasingly intrusive and insidious restrictions by the states. Mandatory waiting periods. Discriminatory building codes on health clinics. Threats against doctors. Mandatory ultrasounds and counseling by so-called “pregnancy crisis centers,” staffed by Christian volunteers opposed to abortion. (Some of which are paid for with government funds. How’s that for separation of church and state?). Personhood amendments that give a fetus the same legal rights as an adult woman. Even conservative voters in Mississippi defeated that horrific idea. Then there was the barbaric transvaginal ultrasound law. It nearly got on the books in Virginia until thousands of women and men rose up against it.
None of these measures respects women’s liberties.
Again the Guttmacher Institute:
In the 50 states combined, legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, a sharp increase from the 950 introduced in 2010. By year’s end, 135 of these provisions had been enacted in 36 states, an increase from the 89 enacted in 2010 and the 77 enacted in 2009.
A post from Fem2pt.0spells it out even more:
In fact, laws passed in recent years have included Utah’s 72-hour waiting period (the longest in the country), Arizona’s court-challenged 2012 law that starts counting gestation two weeks before conception (huh?), and an increase in abstinence-only “education” (despite its widely publicized failures and the fact that most parents support comprehensive sex education).
Even as I was writing this, I got a Google alert about a
new bill by GOP Sen. Bob Crist of Nebraska. I almost feel compelled to issue a spoiler alert for violence and emotional distress here. The bill would require four-dimensional ultrasound images of a fetus to be posted on a state website. It would also require you to post notice of informed consent. What’s next, a law following a woman week by week through her pregnancy, to be sure she actually gives birth? The blowback to this despicable idea has already been fierce, but this is what it’s come to. Having your uterus and medical decisions on public display.
When I saw the ultrasounds of my son and daughter, saw their fuzzy shapes floating inside of me, it was one of the most profound moments of my life. But if anything, it made me even more protective of abortion rights because of the enormous responsibility of raising a child.
I have my own beliefs on abortion. But I would never try to impose them on someone else. And yet those who call themselves “pro-life” are trying to force theirs on millions of American women because they presume to know what’s best for us, what our life circumstances are like, without knowing a damn thing. Even if I thought she was making a horrible mistake, even if I thought she’d make a terrible mother, I would never tell a woman to have an abortion. That is not my place. So why should politicians tell me I can’t, or make it practically impossible when it's a legal right?
But I am hopeful. This last election those who favor abortion rights won the day, while extremists like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were rejected. We have 20 women in the Senate, an historic record. We have a generation of smart young feminists like Sandra Fluke, but also a more inclusive range of Latina, African-American and Asian women who are incredibly engaged in protecting reproductive rights.
I have no doubt they’ll protect Roe for the next 40 years.