Feminists React: 48 Years After Roe v. Wade, What’s Next?

On the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade—a 7-2 Supreme Court decision that protects a pregnant person’s liberty to choose abortion—feminists across the nation are celebrating the major victory and progress that’s been made since, while acknowledging the long road ahead towards securing universal reproductive freedom.

The 1973 ruling—which 77 percent of Americans believe should not be overturned—declared abortion a constitutional right and prohibited states from criminalizing abortion, thus reducing the number of dangerous back-alley procedures.

Although it’s been nearly half a decade since Roe, abortion restrictions still exist within the U.S. That’s because while Roe v. Wade indeed legalized abortion nationwide, subsequent Supreme Court decisions gave states the ability to regulate the procedure, so long as the restrictions don’t pose an “undue burden” on the pregnant person.

Attacks and restrictions on abortion access even extend to U.S. foreign policy: The newly inaugurated Biden administration inherited a global gag rule, under which the U.S. must withhold billions of dollars of aid from health organizations that so much as discuss abortion. But just one day into its new term, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), announced the Biden administration’s intent to immediately scrap the provision, officially known as the Mexico City Policy:

“It will be our policy to support women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in the United States, as well as globally. To that end, President Biden will be revoking the Mexico City Policy in the coming days, as part of his broader commitment to protect women’s health and advance gender equality at home and around the world.”

The restriction, reinstated in 2017 by the Trump administration, is opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans: A Garin Hart Yang survey conducted in September 2020 found seven-in-ten respondents wanted the policy overturned, including a comfortable majority of Republicans.

Dr. Fauci speaks on behalf of the U.S. at the World Health Organization (WHO) executive board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 22. (Screenshot)

In terms of domestic policy priorities on abortion, the White House released a statement on Roe‘s anniversary, ensuring the public that Biden “is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe. We are also committed to ensuring that we work to eliminate maternal and infant health disparities, increase access to contraception, and support families economically so that all parents can raise their families with dignity.”

The release specifically noted that many discrepancies in health care are dependent on “income, race, zip code, health insurance status, or immigration status,” promising to champion entirely inclusive legislation.

But Biden can do more than just reverse the damage done by Trump.

Advocates are calling on him to support the Global Health, Empowerment and Rights (HER) Act. The legislation, which Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Ami Bera (D-Calif.) plan to reintroduce in Congress in the coming days, would permanently repeal and prohibit the global gag rule. Although it had bipartisan support in the 116th Congress, it only ever made it to committee.

Organizations like the Guttmacher Institute are also demanding an increased budget of $1.66 billion for international family planning programs—which currently receive just $575 million.

Other women’s and human rights organizations have called on Biden and Vice President Harris for swift action. With the majority of Americans supporting a woman’s right to choose, but a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, executive measures and congressional legislation are crucial.

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Many reproductive rights organizations released explicit statements on Roe‘s anniversary, highlighting the importance of active defense of abortion, and of building on current protections.

“Regardless of political affiliation, 73 percent of people in our country support a woman’s access to reproductive care, including safe and legal abortion. Having this right is essential to a woman’s ability to lead a healthy and autonomous life. And, taking away health care and family planning options exacerbates financial instability for women who are already struggling.

“[California Women’s Law Center] reaffirms our commitment to defend Roe as we continue to engage in the national fight to protect reproductive rights and social justice for women and girls across the country.”

—California Women’s Law Center (CWLC)

“Sixteen states have already passed laws that would immediately ban all abortions if Roe v. Wade was overturned. … NOW looks forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration to reverse any of these unconstitutional attacks on Roe. These are attacks on women’s autonomy, designed to take away their power and control over their own decisions and health. Abortion care is reproductive healthcare, and healthcare is a fundamental human right. This isn’t about politics—it’s about our lives.”

—National Organization for Women (NOW)

But these calls have been met with counter-attacks by right-wing politicians and religious groups—from bills in Kansas and Iowa which would ban abortion in the state constitution, to harassment and violence at abortion clinics. And with Justice Amy Coney Barrett expanding the conservative influence on the Supreme Court, more states are expected to undermine Roe v. Wade with policies that would impede on abortion accessibility.

“States that are hostile to abortion rights are even more eager to demonstrate that hostility,” said Jessica Arons, a senior counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Such fervor is building, especially among right-wing extremists who were emboldened following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“Abortion advocates understand the violent connection between the attacks at the U.S. Capitol and the attacks we witness daily at clinics across this country,” said Jennifer Driver, reproductive rights senior director of the State Innovation Exchange (SiX). “These attacks are rooted in white supremacist ideology driven by the desire for power and control.”

Even local officials have agreed that there is a clear association between anti-abortion and pro-Trump hostility.

“The parallels between the January 6 and anti-abortion protests are stark. Both groups are fueled by lies and misinformation and use tactics rooted in patriarchal and white supremacist ideas about who is and is not worthy of having their voices heard or needs met. Both groups aimed to harm and traumatize the people with whom they disagreed through violent rhetoric and actions. Were the two groups a Venn Diagram, it would likely look like a circle.”

—State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Mich.)

When these protests result in legislative steps backward, low-income women and women of color are most negatively affected.

When Roe v. Wade was initially decided by a 7-2 majority, Justice Harry Blackmun—appointed by the notoriously conservative President Richard Nixon—wrote, “This right of privacy… is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent.”

Blackmun was right: When abortion access is restricted, women pay the price—especially Black and Latinx women, who are more likely to face transportation barriers or be restricted financially when clinics are forced to close or waiting periods are implemented.

“As we celebrate nearly 50 years of Roe v. Wade, it’s incredibly important that we recognize the massive shift the movement for reproductive rights has undertaken over the last few decades—and the work that is yet to be done. Thanks to the work of Black women, members of the queer community and people of color, when we talk about Roe, we’re now talking about reproductive rights and health issues that are fundamentally intertwined with racial and social justice issues. On this anniversary, we must commit to continuing the fight for something more — a vision of reproductive justice that affirms the lives of Black people everywhere.”

—Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong

“It’s people working to make ends meet, especially BIPOC, that are most harmed by restrictions and inactions on ensuring abortion care… Roe itself has never been enough. Roe has always been the floor and not the ceiling. It’s up to us to keep pushing to keep moving forward toward true reproductive freedom.”

—Sylvia Ghazarian, executive director of Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project (WRRAP)

While the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is an important occasion on which to reflect and celebrate past victories, the conversation must also center forward progress.

As Physicians for Reproductive Health president and CEO Dr. Jamila Perritt wrote, “It is clear that legality has never been enough.” In many states, legal abortion is only accessible for the lucky few. Until gag rules and the Hyde Amendment are repealed in favor of the Global HER Act and federal funding of care, there’s still work to be done.

We need to reimagine a world where access to abortion is a reality for every body — no matter who they are, where they live, their income, or how they get their health coverage. Until then, anti-choice extremists will continue attacking reproductive freedom through dangerous disinformation, abortion bans, and medically unnecessary restrictions that disproportionately block people of color from accessing abortion care.”

—NARAL Pro-Choice America

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Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a junior at Tufts University studying sociology and community health. She is a Ms. contributing writer, and was formerly an editorial fellow, research fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.