Reflecting on Roe v. Wade in 2010

Posted January 24, 2010

Shortly after the 1973 Supreme Court decision that overturned the laws outlawing abortion I attended a workshop in which one of the lawyers who successfully argued the case outlined how the right would move to introduce a new round of laws targeting abortion. These included:

  • Laws requiring minors to obtain permission from one or both of their parents.
  • Laws requiring spousal consent.
  • Laws burdening clinics with excessive record keeping or other requirements limiting access.
  • Laws restricting second- and third-trimester abortions.
  • Laws amending federal programs to eliminate access to abortion.

These were to then chip away at the principles outlined in Roe v. Wade before launching a frontal assault on the 1973 decision.

All of these were to be accompanied by right-wingers harassment of clinics–which is where most abortions occur–and the clinic’s health care providers, particularly doctors.

After almost forty years, how has access to abortion–which represents just one aspect of women’s reproductive life–fared?

Clearly abortion as a medical procedure exists, however access remains limited. Both poor women on Medicaid and women provided with military health care are unable to obtain abortions under their coverage. Similarly to access to birth control information, the legal right to abortion has never been accompanied by access. Clinics set up to perform abortion services must follow strict regulation but also secure their facility from terrorist attack.

Ninety percent of women who want an abortion are able to obtain one within the first semester of their pregnancy, when the procedure is relatively uncomplicated and inexpensive. Pregnant teenagers in need of an abortion but unwilling or unable to secure parental consent have been able to use a judicial bypass–but this requires perseverance and is dependent on the judicial system!

Typically states demand that women seeking abortion receive a lecture–often written by legislators, not medical personnel–on the risks and alternatives. They are shown drawings of a developing fetus and must sign a form acknowledging having received the information. Then the woman must wait 24 hours before returning for the procedure. In Michigan, for the 40% of women who must travel 400 miles to a clinic, this means they must be away from home and work significantly longer and need to find overnight housing.

The right wing has been able to pass a federal law outlawing the rarely used intact dilation and extraction procedure used for a very small percentage of late-term abortions (something less than 0.2% per year). With the passage of the emotionally named Partial Birth Abortion Act, a medical procedure was banned, subjecting doctors to prison for performing what many medical personnel consider the safest method at that stage of the abortion. Those who need a late-term abortion usually were happily anticipating the birth of the child, only to discover a severe abnormality or their own life endangered by the continued pregnancy.

Women’s bodies continue to be contested terrain. That can be seen in the 2009 debate over health care, where the right demanded that no insurance policy that covered abortion could receive any federal money. Given that most policies do cover this service, the successful lobbying by the right wing produced bills that, if passed, would eliminate coverage from most plans.

The continued onslaught of judgmental right-wing fundamentalism is not limited to abortion, but pervades most public discussions of sexuality and childrearing. We can take notice that another anniversary of Roe v. Wade, although battered and inadequate, has passed and still stands. Yet we see how much remains to be done.