As Roe v. Wade hangs by a thread, looking back at feminist history can provide a well-reasoned basis for political action and pro-choice movements.
I joined the League of Women Voters in September 1973, eight months after Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court. In 1981, four years after the unratified Equal Rights Amendment opened my eyes to feminism, I was elected to the New Jersey League’s Board of Directors.
At that same state convention, delegates approved a study of birth control and abortion public policy that fell under my women’s issues portfolio. Roe’s central holding—that “the right of privacy … is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy”—had stirred up the hornet’s nest of the abortion debate, and anti-choice public policy threats were swarming.
The more I found out about the issue, the more I wanted to know—and the more indignant, frustrated and angry I became that women were uniquely at the center of it but were virtually powerless over its legal circumstances. As I kept learning, the pieces began to come together in a way I hadn’t foreseen.
The right of privacy means the right of an individual to be free from undue government intrusion into fundamental personal issues and decisions. It goes without saying that government is still controlled by men.
So if Roe (reinforced by Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992) is ever consistently applied to keep government from interfering with the choice of whether or not to continue a pregnancy before viability (around 24 weeks of gestation), women will be legally empowered to implement their reproductive decisions and optimize their chances for healthy and successful lives on their own terms. The result? Men in power—men in general—will lose much of their systemic dominance and many sex-based advantages.
Anti-choice politicians and activists vehemently attack the right of privacy and other pro-choice public policies because they know instinctively what they’re fighting to preserve.
Opponents of feminism sometimes understand better than we do how much is at stake for them if women achieve equality and autonomy. Anti-choice politicians and activists vehemently attack the right of privacy and other pro-choice public policies because they know instinctively what they’re fighting to preserve.
Despite the focus on pregnancy, the conflict over reproductive rights is at least as much about keeping women in a secondary position existentially and culturally as it is about the fetus.
When It Comes to Abortion Policy, Who Gets to Decide?
Our League study committee organized the discussion materials around two major questions: “What is the moral status of abortion?” and “What is the appropriate and permissible role of government under the U.S. Constitution with respect to abortion public policy?”
The first question, we posited, is not resolvable in the public policy arena. Credible mainstream religions, groups and individuals will likely never reach consensus about the moral acceptability of abortion, euthanasia, self-defense, capital punishment, war or other contexts for termination of life in given circumstances.
The moment at which a living fertilized human egg becomes equal in existential and moral status to a born person is a religious or philosophical concept, not a medical or legal one. Government cannot arbitrarily base laws on only one religious view of personhood without violating the separation of church and state guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The second question, we said, is the only one of the two appropriate for deliberation in the League study and the halls of government. Those debates must consider individual liberties, religious freedom, the right of privacy and other constitutional guarantees that constrain government’s ability to dictate the rights of all persons based on just one of multiple commonly held religious or moral positions on an issue.
By separating the questions, League members got to the crux of the public policy matter—”Who decides?” At my local League meeting, a young Catholic woman with two children and a third on the way clearly grasped the distinction. “Now I understand,” she said. “You can be personally anti‑abortion on the moral question and politically pro‑choice on the government one.”
All participating Leagues supported the position announced in April 1982, which began:
“The League of Women Voters of New Jersey believes that public policy on abortion in a pluralistic society must respect the right of the individual to make the choice of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. The government, which has recognized interests in regulating the abortion procedure, should not be involved in the process of that choice.”
I was by then strategizing with the women’s issues director of the Massachusetts LWV, the only other state League with a reproductive rights position, to take the issue to the national League convention a month later. Delegates there adopted a shortcut process asking local Leagues across the country whether they concurred with the pro-choice conclusions of our two state studies.
The national LWVUS “Public Policy on Reproductive Choices” position—announced on January 22, 1983, the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade—was succinct:
“The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that public policy in a pluralistic society must affirm the constitutional right of privacy of the individual to make reproductive choices.”
Nearly 40 years later, as Roe v. Wade hangs by a thread above knives unsheathed by over half the Supreme Court Justices, the League of Women Voters’ pro-choice position is more important than ever as a well-reasoned basis for political action.