As we mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we should acknowledge the right's battle to eliminate a woman's right to choose as well as the proactive measures coming from the pro-choice movement.
Last week marks the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established women have a constitutional right to an abortion. While the status of American women has, by many counts, improved greatly in the years since, our ability to make choices about our bodies – a fundamental condition of our overall physical, social, and economic well-being – has recently eroded. For many women in the United States today, access to a safe and legal abortion is as far out of reach as it was 41 years ago.
During the past three years, conservative lawmakers in many states have imposed transformative restrictions on access to reproductive health care generally, and on abortion specifically. As the Guttmacher Institute recently reported, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted in the past three years, while 189 were passed during the entire previous decade (2001–2010). In 2013 alone, 70 anti-choice measures took effect in 22 states.
North Dakota and Texas banned abortions after 20 weeks. South Dakota passed a law that mandates a 72-hour waiting period, exempting holidays and weekends, forcing some women to wait up to six days before receiving the procedure (the 72 hours, plus a three-day holiday weekend). Iowa now requires the governor to personally approve each payment to a hospital or clinic that provides an abortion to a Medicaid patient. Arizona passed a ban on abortions after 12 weeks (which was recently overturned by the Supreme Court). In a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court, clinics in Massachusetts risk losing their ability to institute buffer zones necessary to protect the safety of their patients.
As NARAL Pro-Choice America recently detailed, laws in other states have restricted funding for Planned Parenthood, prohibited abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges, imposed mandatory and medically unnecessary ultrasounds, and required physicians to jump through countless – and often impossible – hoops in order to perform the procedure. Some of these laws have been overturned, but many remain in place and effectively prevent women, particularly poor women, from accessing care.
Republicans lost the votes of single women by a decisive 36 points – and women overall by 12 points – in the last presidential election. Losing a key voting block by such a wide margin would be reason for some politicians to consider changing course. Not the GOP. In their post-election autopsy, Republican strategists themselves sounded an alarm and advised their ranks to change course – to lighten up on matters of choice and instead remind voters of the “Republican Party’s historical role in advancing the women’s rights movement.” Instead of listening to women, Republican lawmakers remain intent on punishing them.
As my colleague Tara Culp-Ressler of Think Progress wrote, Republicans have seized on abortion with a renewed zeal and will continue to advance their anti-choice platform in the months and years to come. At the RNC annual meeting this week – which conveniently overlapped with the annual anti-abortion March for Life – party leaders introduced a resolution encouraging lawmakers to push for a host of additional abortion restrictions, including parental notification laws, late-term abortion bans, and mandatory waiting periods. As Zoe Carpenter of The Nation pointed out, Republicans will use re-invigorated anti-choice messaging – delivered by female candidates – to excite their conservative base in the mid-term elections. They remain confident that further restrictions are palatable to voters and will use them, in addition to stale (and weak) arguments about taxpayer funding for abortion, to attempt to sway undecided voters.
State legislatures and local governments are thus seen as fertile ground for waging assaults on women’s health. But contrary to Republican expectations, this year those same sites could be promising frontiers for advancing policies that protect and advance women’s health and rights instead of restricting them.
Even as heartland states delivered setbacks for women in 2013, important victories emerged out of progressive states. California enacted a law, for example, that allows nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives, and physician assistants to provide early abortion services. Lawmakers in San Francisco, Austin, and Baltimore passed laws that hold Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) accountable for false and misleading practices and require them to clearly indicate the limited nature of their services. Portland, ME instituted a buffer zone policy around abortion providers, and Dane County, WI now requires all county contractors to provide comprehensive health care information, preventing CPCs from receiving funding if they mislead their patients. We must dedicate our energy and efforts to replicating these successes across the country.
Even as we celebrate gains in progressive states, we must continue to make our voices heard nationally. In November, a group of Democratic members of Congress introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would, if passed, keep states from further restricting access to abortion and preventing physicians from acting in the best interests of their patients. While the bill has little chance of being passed in a Republican-controlled House, it provides an important model for national legislation that could protect a woman’s right to choose if partisan alignments shift.
On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, most especially, let’s remember the heavy toll women pay when abortion is unsafe and illegal. Let’s remember that many women will lose that right all together unless we step forward and take action. We must strengthen alliances of pro-choice lawmakers across the nation, provide them with case studies of what has worked in other cities and states, and muster up more financial resources and political will to proactively protect women’s right to choose.