I lost my virginity in 1973, the same year that Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land. This year I turn fifty, no longer vulnerable to an unwanted pregnancy. The whole of my reproductive life I've been free to determine my own fate. I've lived that life in the bosom of a vibrant feminist movement that nurtured and sustained me, that gave me a larger vision for my life and quite possibly saved it too.
For women like me, the Supreme Court-bound law criminalizing all abortions that has been signed into law in South Dakota brings with an unspeakable sadness that far outweighs in symbolism even whatever horrific consequence the law might have in the actual world where real women reside. For second-wave feminists, the right to make our own decision about whether to be pregnant or not was a declaration of our right to self-determination. It was the foundational necessity on which all else we might achieve was built. Motherhood now, -or not? For the first time in history, we decided for ourselves.
The 1970s were heady times for young women like me. I was fortunate to come of age in forward-looking Madison, Wisconsin during the height of the women's movement. I had my consciousness raised in philosopher Claudia Card's summer school class in radical feminism (Thanks, professor, you and the other women in the class changed my life.) And then I discovered Madison was brimming with women's movement energy. We had A Room of One's Own Bookstore where I first heard Adrienne Rich read her poetry. There was the hip feminist restaurant Lysistrata where we'd meet to plan the demise of patriarchy (on the first date, you'd invite him to Dutch-treat dine with you there, if he hesitated, forget him!). There was Women's Transit Authority, which offered women free nighttime taxi rides to anywhere in town in an old station wagon driven by good-humored female cabbies. We had huge, late night, candlelit Take Back the Night marches, after which State Street's adult bookstore's windows sometimes wound up mysteriously smashed. We invited Starhawk, one of the nation's notable wiccans to campus, and communed with Selena Fox, high priestess of a local coven, who taught us herb lore, rituals and incantations to call forth our special womanpower. We piled in cars to journey to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, to Judy Chicago's Dinner Party and to march on Washington in support of the Equal Rights
We formed Womonsong, our own women's community choir, to perform the explosion of women's music being produced that decade. Once, we did back-up in a concert starring feminist singer and songwriter, Holly Near. We sang:
Can we be like drops of water falling on the stone
splashing, breaking, disbursing in air
weaker than the stone by far, but be aware
that as time goes by the rock will wear away
And we believed it.
I belonged to a collective who sporadically put out a small magazine, Bread & Roses, A Women's Journal of Issues and the Arts. The authors we reprinted included Margaret Atwood, Helene Cixous, Xaviere Gauthier, Judy Grahn, Annis Pratt. Once, we had a hard time finding anyone to print our issue because our art section included photos of naked women. Once, we ran a full-page ad on the back of our journal featuring a bloody coat hanger admonishing our readers to "show support for women's lives, support abortion rights."
There was a deep connection, we knew, between all we were becoming and the absence of that coat hanger as a potential fact of our lives. It was as if all the wondrous energy of the women's movement had been unleashed by Roe, by the knowledge that our lives were ours to decide. When an anti-abortion group put up a billboard on the main road into town, we dressed in black, went out at midnight with our ladders and spray cans and baggies of lime green paint and we defaced the thing. It was our freedom at stake, our future, our bodies, and no one was going to tell us how to live our lives.
Things are different now.
Now, South Dakota has passed a bill that would make felons out of abortion providers and make nearly all abortions illegal. Even before Roe vs. Wade, doctors were only sometimes fined, not jailed.
Now, Bush II appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito join Daddy Bush's Clarence Thomas and Reagan's Antonin Scalia on the High Court. Alito's "open mind" on abortion has given way, in mere weeks, to this barely coded note of thanks to influential anti-choice conservative James Dobson, "As long as I serve on the Supreme Court, I will keep in mind the trust that has been placed in me."
And the one man who stands charged with keeping abortion legal, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, is 85 years old.
Now, Susan Wood has had to resign in disgust. Dr. Wood is the former Assistant Commissioner for Women's Health at the Food and Drug Administration. In August 2005, Dr. Wood resigned on principle in response to the decision announced by FDA leadership to once again delay approval of Plan B emergency contraception, despite the recommendation of FDA scientific staff and advisory committees. The FDA has no plans currently to push ahead with approving Plan B.
My current university's town, Hempstead, NY, woke up this week to the news that a newborn baby had been found dead at the side of the road, run over several times, some young woman's desperate solution. There'll be more of those, many more, if our right to choose abortion goes the way of South Dakota. There were 24 women who died of illegal abortions in 1972. There will be more of them, many more, too. As our magazine's ad said all those years ago, "You can't outlaw abortion. You can only outlaw safe abortion."
Reasonable pro-choice people have told me that, at worst, it will be illegal in some states. New York, California, the rest of the Northeast, probably won't outlaw abortion. Poor women in much of the nation already are all but denied the right to choose. Little will change for them. All true, perhaps. It was the same before Roe. Wealthy women got their abortions. The poor got their unwanted children and were then blamed for having too many.
But Roe vs. Wade is not just about the right to a safe and legal abortion. It is the emancipation proclamation for my gender, the supreme law of the land that says I and only I have the right to decide my body's future.
All freedoms proceed from the right to bodily integrity; none are assured without that first freedom.
Will the women of my generation be the only American women to live as I have, free under the law to shape my life as I chose?
I've seen the Badlands of South Dakota. They're the product of erosion. Drop by drop, the rock just wore away.
Cynthia J. Bogard (Cynthia.J.Bogard@hofstra.edu) is the director of the women's studies program and a professor of sociology at Hofstra University in New York.