Last Friday, Jan. 22, 2010, marked the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion across the United States. This is not to say that abortion was not legal at all before Roe - it was legal in 1/3 of states before Roe, and it was legal in the US before the Victorians more or less ruined everything with their horrid morality issues. But don't get me started on the Victorians...
Anyway, for a little while, Roe changed things for women who lived in states that did not have legal abortions. But in the long run, as a staunch supporter of a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy within a reasonable time frame for whatever reason, I actually think the national legalization of abortion did more harm than good. What it did was open the flood gates to little laws that chipped away at the right to have an abortion so that while abortion is technically legal, it is not necessarily accessible. This keeps most Americans complacent, wondering why pro-choicers are complaining when abortion is legal. At the same time, the protesters remain whipped up in a self-righteous frenzy because abortion is legal, even though abortion services are not available to many women in America.
Consider: The good folks at The Guttmacher Institute* reported that 87% of counties in the US lacked an abortion provider in 2005. Over one-third of American women (35%) live in those counties. As a result, 25% of women seeking abortions in non-hospital facilities travel 50 miles or more, and 8% of women traveled more than 100 miles to exercise their legal rights to a medical procedure. Given that these access issues are most pronounced in states that did not have legal abortion before Roe, I'm not sure how things are so different for women who live in those places today. Legal or not, they still can't get the services they need.
I used to be an active volunteer with the Haven Coalition, which offered housing to women forced to travel to New York City to obtain an abortion. I met a lot of women from a variety of backgrounds and age groups, and I learned three things: if abortions aren't accessible, women will still find ways to get them; if abortions aren't accessible, women will have later abortions because it takes longer to get everything together for the procedure; and if abortions aren't accessible, poor women suffer the most. As the former coordinator of Haven used to say, safe legal abortion is meaningless if it is not accessible and available to the people who need them.
All of this is documented in Carole Joffe's new book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us. As Joffe wrote on The Beacon Broadside:
On Sunday May 31, 2009, just weeks after the new president went to Notre Dame University to plead for "common ground" on the abortion issue, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas, was brutally assassinated in the lobby of his church... Since Tiller's murder, a number of abortion-providing clinics across the country have reported an upsurge in violence and harassment. Most ominously perhaps, in Charlotte, North Carolina, "wanted posters" have appeared outside a clinic, bearing the pictures, names and work addresses of two of the physicians that work there. Patients and staff at this clinic and others are subjected to protestors swarming over their cars as they drive onto clinic grounds, and verbal abuse– for example, "Satan will drink the blood of your babies" – delivered through microphones at deafening tones.
I've seen similar reports on Planned Parenthood's blog, I Am Emily X, which documents the experiences of Planned Parenthood clinic staff around the country when they are under siege from protesters. The doctors and clinic staff who tolerate harassment, as documented by Joffe and others, are saints. Because even when their children are threatened by people who claim to love life, they realize that legal abortion is an empty promise without people to actually perform the treatment.
In a post commemorating 37 years of legal, but theoretically available abortion, Joan Malin from NYC Planned Parenthood gets right to the root cause at The Huffington Post:
In the thirty-seven years since Roe V. Wade was decided, we have seen women's access to abortion slowly eroded. There have been legal restrictions, mandatory waiting periods, prohibitions on federal funding, clinic closings, murders of providers, bomb threats, campaigns to stigmatize the procedure, and attempts to ban the procedure completely.
She urges people to stand up for real abortion rights by not banning abortion services from any national health reform plan. (I'm not going to hold my breath for that, although I agree that abortion care is health care.) The Choices Campus Blog also notes all the challenges women face when trying to have an abortion, and suggest ten activists strategies to improve the current situation.
At the end of the day, I'm not sorry that Roe passed. It is essential that all women have the right to self-determination, regardless of what state they reside in. But I also hope that more people can see through the hype. Yes, it is legal. Yes, it is safe. But legal does not mean that abortion is a real, viable option for thousands of women who may want it. We need to change that if we want Roe to be meaningful. We need to wake up.
*AGI, incidentally also reports that:
About 60% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children... Three-fourths of women [who have an abortion] cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.
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