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ADVOCACY | winter 2002

Roe v. Wade at 30
A bittersweet celebration

Ms. Winter 2002

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On January 22, the Roe v. Wade decision that ensures women's right to an abortion will be 30 years old. It's a very troubling anniversary.

On the one hand, the guarantees in Roe have provided tremendous opportunity and choice for women to control our lives and bodies. It's so much a part of the fabric of our society that people take it for granted. These is no question that women are exercising these rights. The Alan Guttmacher Institute tells us that 43 percent of women will have an abortion over the course of their childbearing years.

On the other hand, the reactionary right is constantly chipping away at the reproductive freedom of the most vulnerable of us.


Eleanor Smeal, photo by Jan Welch

The story of the last 30 years is one of relentless erosion of the guarantees in Roe. The ruling is announced in January 1973, and immediately the backlash begins. By July, we have the Helms amendment restricting foreign assistance funds so women in developing countries are denied safe abortions. Then in 1976, thorough the Hyde amendment, we lose Medicaid funding. Now, in all but 16 states, abortions are not funded for most poor women. Only a small percentage of counties in the nation even have an abortion provider. In a huge number of states, we've lost the rights of teenagers to have abortions without parental notification or consent. There must be a judicial bypass provision, but that's meaningless for too many young women who are uninformed or lack resources. The chipping away of rights begins with the most vulnerable: women in developing countries and the poor women and young women in this country.

But the erosion is taking place in such a way that too many women are in a state of denial. Polls show that more than half of women [61 percent, to be exact] in the United States--those most affected-- don't believe that Roe could be reversed. But it's hanging by a thread, protected by a five to four majority in the Supreme Court. We are rapidly approaching a majority that could reverse Roe.

When will the pro-choice majority in this country wake up? After our rights have slipped away?

We have an anti-choice president who promised to clone Justices Scalia and Thomas on the court-- a code to his most conservative supporters that he will choose someone solidly against Roe v. Wade. President Bush might get one Supreme Court appointment. He might get two.

Now, with the 2002 election results counted, the anti-abortion rights leaders control the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee with right wing Senator Orrin Hatch at the helm, will most likely rubber-stamp the president's judicial nominees and send them to the Senate floor for a vote. The filibuster strategy, which is backed by many pro-choice groups, may be the only way to prevent the confirmation of anti-abortion Supreme Court nominees. On the Senate floor, faced with a nominee who opposes Roe or refuses to state his or her views on abortion, like Clarence Thomas, we must go for the 41 votes it takes to block a confirmation by filibuster, rather than the 51 votes it takes to defeat a nominee on the floor.

We simply can't afford to lose Roe. We know from experience with the Equal Rights Amendment how a small minority can block a constitutional amendment, if we are forced to take that road to restore our rights. The state legislatures are so far from being representative of the views of the majority of Americans on this issue that if we lose Roe by a slim margin, many states will immediately outlaw abortion. That's why it was important this year that California passed a law codifying Roe into state law.

Recent elections have been very deceptive on reproductive choice. Candidates whom we know vote against abortion rights were able to fool the electorate. Or, they would say: it's not really an important issue because the laws are not going to change. But the Senate election of 2002 showed how truly difficult the challenge is when the president is able to frame the debate. In key Senate races, voters who thought abortion was an important issue overwhelmingly voted for the anti-abortion candidate. How could this happen with the majority of the electorate being pro-choice? Simply, pro-women's rights candidates too often do not use the abortion issue to motivate their base. The result-- we lost a pro-choice majority leadership in the Senate.

Encouragingly, however, in gubernatorial races in which voters were presented with a clear choice between pro-women's rights candidates and anti-abortion candidates-- such as Arizona, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas, Maine, Wisconsin, and New Mexico-- we won.

In the next two years, we have to get more and more people to join women's and pro-choice organizations. We are in the fight of our lives: whether we will go back in time for women or forward. Many people on the pro-choice side don't like to think of ourselves as single-issue voters. But I applaud a targeted strategy in this life-or-death situation. Women are dying now because of Bush's reactionary international family planning policies. It's parochial for us to ignore the fact that at least 70,000---and probably twice that number---of women in the developing world die each year through illegal and unsafe abortions. And frankly, a candidate's position on choices is a useful barometer of where she or he stands generally on women's rights, human rights, civil rights, and the environment.

It's time for women, especially young women, to start showing our anger. Those grandfather's in the Senate-- and that's what we've got there mostly-- are deciding young women's futures. The war in Vietnam only stopped when the public would not accept it anymore. So we cannot remain quiet. We may just have to have one march after another, one demonstration after another. Are we going to let this tragedy occur, or are we going to mobilize now? For once, women must value our lives highly enough to place our own issues above the others.