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.