Forty years ago this month, the Supreme Court affirmed a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States, forever changing and literally saving the lives of countless women. The impact of Roe has been both inspiring and frustratingly insufficient.
Access to abortion care, as well as birth control, helped pave the way for women to participate in the world outside the home in ways that men have long taken for granted. During the second half of the 20th century, we witnessed the incredible transformation of women's role in U.S. society. Women streamed into universities and workplaces. They began taking on jobs that once seemed permanently reserved for men. They moved into positions of power in politics and corporations. Their economic status relative to men improved dramatically.
Could all this have happened without Roe v. Wade and the earlier cases that established the right to use contraception? Of course not. As now-retired U.S. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once noted, women's ability to "organize intimate relationships and make choices that define their views of themselves and their place in society" was directly attributable to Roe. She continued: "The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."
But the ongoing march toward full equality for all women requires more than an acknowledgement that a "right to choose" exists. One in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45, making the procedure a common and necessary aspect of women's reproductive health. But it is by no means the be-all and end-all of our health. Without access to the full spectrum of reproductive care—from prenatal care to mammograms, comprehensive sex education to STD/HIV screenings, in addition to birth control and abortion—a woman's ability to define her place in society will remain elusive. That these services are disproportionately out of reach for women of color, young women, immigrant women, and Native American women speaks to the limitations of Roe.
In the early days, Roe showed real promise of heralding a new era of reproductive justice. The focus by courts and advocates was on women's medical needs, of which abortion was one aspect. But conservative lawmakers' strategy of blocking as many women as possible from access to abortion inevitably resulted in obstacles to their access to other reproductive services as well. They went after the most vulnerable women first. The late Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, author of the 1976 Hyde Amendment that blocks Medicaid from funding abortion care, justified it as politically expedient, saying: "I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion—a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the ... Medicaid bill."
Following the Hyde Amendment, young women's access to care has been restricted via parental consent and notification laws. Women in rural communities, who must travel great distances to obtain services, are targeted through waiting periods. Family planning clinics have been defunded. The list of hurdles goes on and on, and they spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2010 elections, when Tea Party extremists flooded into Congress and state legislatures. In 2011, states passed 92 anti-abortion measures, shattering the previous record of 34, set in 2005.
But the heartening results from last November indicate our way forward. Our nation re-elected a president who not only supports abortion rights but proudly ran on that issue. The 113th Congress has more prochoice representatives and senators than its predecessor. Exit polls indicate that by significant margins, voters—including those who consider themselves prolife—want abortion care to remain safe and legal, along the lines originally established in Roe v. Wade. And it is beyond dispute that people overwhelmingly support access to contraception.
Conservatives have already signaled that they'll try to distract voters from issues like abortion and birth control. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell waited until the Friday between Christmas and New Year's to sign a law imposing impossible and unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics, thus forcing their closure. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told the Republican Governors Association that conservatives shouldn't change their hardline agenda, just the way they talk about it. The last thing they want in 2014 is for voters to become knowledgeable about their social agenda and energized to defeat them.
That's where organizations dedicated to women's rights and justice come in. We need to ensure voters are educated and mobilized about women's access to reproductive healthcare. That is how we will elect legislators who stand with the people, where the people already are—squarely in support of real, lasting equality and justice for women.
Thanks to Roe¸ many of those lawmakers will themselves be women.