Roe at 40: Before, After and the Future
It been 40 years since the US Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade, but since that decision laws continue to be enacted that restrict women's rights to contraception and abortion. Katharine Bodde from NYCLU spoke at an event in honor of Roe at the Unitarian Church on January 23, 2013. Ms. Bodde spoke on the the history and background of abortion in the US, what Roe means for women, how laws have eroded the ability for women to access abortions and what is ahead for women's reproductive rights.
Abortion was legal in the US until 1821 if it was performed before quickening. Quickening is when the woman can first feel the fetus move inside her. In 1821 Connecticut became to first state to make abortion illegal and by the end of the 1800's abortion was illegal in all the U.S. states. The reasons varied from state to state on outlawing of abortion. Some feared the population would be dominated by newly arriving immigrants' children, whose birthrates were higher than those Anglo-Saxon women that were already established in the US. Another reason for making abortion illegal was the primitive medical profession. Surgical procedures were very risky due to the lack of hospitals, antiseptic and antibiotics.
In the 1950's several groups emerged supporting the liberalization of abortion. Since the improvement of medical care, public health advocates and doctors started speaking out, environmentalists spoke about concerns that an ever growing population might not be able to be sustained by the earth's resources and advocates spoke out for more sexual freedom. In the later half of the 1960's feminist organizations started speaking out and promoting the legalization of abortion as part of a broader platform for women's equality and role in society.
Politics was not polarized in the 1960's as it is currently. In 1965, Eisenhower, a Republican, and Truman, a Democrat, co-chaired a Planned Parenthood committee advocating for family planning. This bipartisan support changed in 1972 when Richard M. Nixon was reelected. His campaign had developed the southern strategy which focused on creating a new base of Catholic and other social conservatives and included politicizing abortion. That strategy continues to be used by Republicans and has become a very divisive issue in US elections.
In 1973 the U.S. Supreme court decided on a case challenging a Texas law that banned abortions. What the the decision says is that the right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the state would impose on a pregnant woman by denying her this choice altogether is apparent." This decision gave women the ability to decide when and if to have a child and is the foundation of women's equality, autonomy and dignity. The ability to make this choice impacts a woman's health, educational opportunities, financial security and her career/professional life.
The need for safe and legal reproductive health care is so important. Statistics show that:
-1 out of 3 women in the U.S. will have an abortion before the age of 45.
-Without contraception, the average woman would experience 12 to 15 pregnancies during her lifetime.
-Nearly half of pregnancies are unintended.
-Women who obtain abortions represent every religious affiliation. 43% identify themselves as Protestant, 27% as Catholic and 13% describe themselves as born-again or Evangelical Christians.
-60% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children.
Since Roe, the access to abortion has declined. The number of providers have declined over the years. This is partly a result of abortion procedures not being taught in medical schools or only as an elective and the risks to providers from anti-abortion terrorists, who have murdered providers and bombed clinics for decades. Legislation that has been enacted has restricted the woman and her decision making through waiting periods, mandatory counseling provisions and ultrasounds, and mandatory spousal or parental involvement through notification or consent. Restrictions on the manner in which abortions are performed has also created access difficulties. Through legislation there have been bans on certain abortion procedures and TRAP laws. TRAP laws have been enacted requiring various structural requirements , such as specifications for janitorial closets and hallway heights and widths which are only required in clinics and doctors offices that provide abortion services. The TRAP laws have also established new licensing requirements for clinics, heavy fees among other requirements. These TRAP laws have been enacted for the sole purpose of closing abortion clinics and providers' offices. One of the largest obstacles to a woman accessing an abortion is funding. The Hyde Amendment, which was one of the first obstacles legislated to hinder women's access to abortions.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) attached a provision, now known as the “Hyde Amendment,” to the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) that would end Medicaid funding for abortion. Exposing his true motives, Rep. Hyde said during the floor debate, “I would certainly 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 HEW Medicaid bill.” The measure passed because it appealed not only to the Right’s pro-traditional family elements, but also to members of its anti-big government and anti-welfare coalition. These groups continue to push an anti woman, anti abortion agenda.
On September 30, 1976, the Hyde Amendment passed the House 207-167, with no exceptions even for extreme circumstances. A challenge was brought to court, but ultimately it was upheld. In 1977 lawmakers reached a compromise to include exceptions for instances of rape or incest that had been reported to law enforcement or public health agencies, for pregnancies that threatened the life of the mother, or where two physicians determined that “severe and long-lasting physical health damage” to the mother would result. The Hyde amendment continues to be renewed every year in the Appropriations bill, hindering poor women's access to safe, legal abortions.
Despite all the legislation being enacted to limit a woman's access to reproductive health care, in NYS there are signs of greater protections for women's reproductive health and equality. Governor Cuomo at the State of the Sate address brought up the Women's Equality Agenda that would:
1. Protect a Woman's Freedom of Choice by Enacting the Reproductive Health Act.
2. Achieve Pay Equity
3. Stop Sexual Harassment in All Workplaces
4. Allow for the Recovery of Attorney's Fees in Employment, Credit and Lending Cases
5. Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws
6. End Family Status Discrimination
7. Stop Source-of-Income Discrimination
8. Stop Housing Discrimination for Victims of Domestic Violence
9. Stop Pregnancy Discrimination Once and For All
10. Protect Victims of Domestic Violence by Strengthen Order-of-Protection Laws
The Reproductive Heath Act would:
-Guarantee that every woman in NYS can make her own personal health car decisions
-Every woman in NYS should be able to end a pregnancy that endangers her life
-No doctor should fear being thrown in Jail for helping a woman whose health is threatened by pregnancy.
-NYS has a responsibility to lead the nation in the right direction.
In 2011 and 2012, an unpresidented number of bills were introduced in federal and many state legislatures. These bills included redefining rape, vaginal ultrasounds and personhood amendments to name a few. Unfortunately many laws were passed that limited more and more women access to safe, legal abortions. All these restrictions and continued attempts at more restrictions have had a galvanizing effect and has rejuvenated women to say "We won't go back."
Both The Women's Equality Agenda and the Reproductive Health Act will be introduced in both the NYS Assembly and Senate. NYS can set the example of enacted legislation that will expand women's rights in so many areas. Polls show that a majority of people in the U.S. are in support of Roe, yet the legislation that has been introduced and passed in many cases, has demonstatrated the influence the anti-abortion religious organizations and activists have had on limiting access to women seeking a safe, legal abortion. Will NYS start a new trend in the direction of ensuring that women have reproductive rights and expand protections and equality in many more areas? We will see this year.
For additional information or to get involved: