Roe v. Wade at 36: Reproductive Justice Advocates Reflect on What Roe Does, and Doesn’t Do

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Roe v. Wade at 36: Reproductive Justice Advocates Reflect on What Roe Does, and Doesn’t Do

Emily Douglas

On the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Rewire asked prominent reproductive justice writers and activists what Roe meant to them and the women they serve -- and why Roe is not enough to ensure all women have access to reproductive choice.

Thirty-six years ago, the Supreme Court decision that argued that a woman’s fundamental right to privacy included the right to decide to terminate a pregnancy. And yet in years since, the Court argued that this “right” existed for women even when women couldn’t make use of it — when abortion was too expensive, or the provider too far away. The Court refused to hold the government accountable for making abortion accessible to women. On this 36th anniversary of Roe, Rewire asked prominent reproductive justice writers and activists what Roe meant to them and the women they serve — and why Roe is not enough to ensure all women have access to reproductive choice.

Rewire: What is the significance of Roe to you and to the women you serve?

Miriam Perez, Senior Advocacy Associate at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health:

For the women we work with, many of whom come from
countries in Latin America where abortion is
still criminalized, Roe has the potential to have a huge impact on their lives.
Roe has the potential to make reproductive health services just like any other
healthcare need a woman has, it has the potential to make a usually clandestine
procedure safe and accessible. Unfortunately for them, the Roe decision has
been weakened and diluted by subsequent legislation. The Hyde Amendment, in
particular, has seriously stunted the potential of Roe. Because of these laws,
we have a long way to go for low-income and immigrant women to really feel the
full affects of this historic Supreme Court decision.

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Toni Bond Leonard, Board President, National Network of Abortion Funds:

As I think about Roe
on this 36th anniversary, I cannot help but reflect on the
stories I have heard from women who have been unable to realize the
constitutional protections it was created to afford all women.
For low-income women, women of color, Native American and indigenous
women, immigrant women, and young women, Roe is an unfilled promise.
Although Roe held that a woman may terminate her pregnancy for any reason
up until the point at which a fetus is viable, far too many women are
forced to do just the opposite. Roe was supposed to support
and affirm a woman’s constitutional right to privacy and human right
to be self-determining about her body. The landmark case that
was our answer and solution to back-alley abortions and far too many
lives being lost due to unsafe and illegal abortion has been forever
tainted by the Hyde Amendment passed in 1976. Roe gave women the
ability to literally save their own lives through empowering them to
make critical decisions about when to parent. Unfortunately, the
Hyde Amendment came along and robbed those women who lacked the economic
means of that right. Roe has been the proverbial carrot that has
been dangled before the eyes of poor women and cruelly yanked from them
through the Hyde Amendment. For poor women in grassroots communities
around this country, Roe has yet to be fully realized. It is a
constitutional right that sounds good in theory but still is not a reality
for the women who call member funds of the National Network of Abortion

Loretta J. Ross, National Coordinator, and Serena Garcia, Communications Coordinator, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective:

The decision and impact of Roe v. Wade has facilitated our ability to make healthy decisions about our bodies,
sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in
all areas of our lives.

Aspen Baker, Executive Director, Exhale:

I was born on the third anniversary of Roe v Wade. I have grown up only knowing legal abortion and the war that surrounds it, which is something else I share in common with thousands of women and men who call Exhale’s post-abortion talkline every year looking for emotional support. That many of us know to be true is that despite its legality, abortion remains taboo, a big secret, something to hide rather than share. I see the anniversary of Roe as an opportunity to listen to the voices of those who have had legal abortions over the last 36 years and to learn from their experiences. They are the ones that can point us towards a better, more peaceful path for abortion in the US for the next 36 years.

Maria Luisa Sanchez Fuentes, executive director of the Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida (GIRE), or the Information Group on Reproductive Choice:

Legal abortion [obtained for women living in Mexico City nearly two years ago] has given women relief, confidence in public
hospitals, and the freedom to choose what is best for their lives. It has
reduced embarrassment and guilt. And it has made them more careful of
their sexual lives.

Rewire: Is Roe enough? What does our country need in addition to Roe to ensure reproductive justice for all women?

Miriam Perez:

Roe isn’t enough because privacy is not enough. That
narrow legal framework has only barely protected our legal right to access the
procedure. It says nothing about access, about funding, about autonomy and barriers.
It says nothing about justice. It has not addressed those who based on moral
and religious convictions try to limit the health care women can receive. It
has not addressed those who want women’s bodies to be manipulated in
service of a religious agenda and who want the fetus’s rights to be
placed about those of the mother. We need a lot more than a shaky legal
framework to stand on if we want to achieve reproductive justice.

Toni Bond Leonard:

Each day, when the phone
rings with a call from another woman in need of financial assistance
for a safe abortion, I am again reminded that Roe is not enough.
Is Roe enough? No, it is not enough to merely say that a woman
has a constitutional right to determine when and whether to have a child.
It is not enough when we live everyday with funding restrictions that
prohibit women from making life changing decisions about their bodies,
their lives. To realize true reproductive justice, women need
access to the full range of reproductive health care. That includes,
family planning, safe contraceptives, and safe abortion services.
Our country has to become a place that promotes a reproductive justice
agenda that creates and supports the conditions where women live in
homes and communities free from all forms of sexual and domestic violence.
Ours must become a country that sets an example for the rest of the
world of how women live free from all forms of sexual oppression.
To realize true reproductive justice, women must be entrusted to be
the true agents of their own lives afforded with the economic and social
supports to make the best decisions for themselves, their families,
and their communities. The reproductive justice framework is one
that promotes a holistic approach to creating a society where women
are healthy, have healthy families and live in healthy communities.
This means living in a country where citizens have jobs paying living
wages, safe and adequate housing, affordable health care, access to
safe, healthy foods, and sustainable and clean environments. True
reproductive justice means that women not only are able to make and
exercise decisions about having an abortion, but also have the social
and economic supports to raise and parent children. Women need
access to pre- and post-natal care, as well as support for the right
to play pivotal roles in decisions about labor and delivery experiences.
Women incarcerated must be afforded the right to receive abortion services
and have birthing experiences with dignity and not shackled down to
beds like animals. Parenting women with substance abuse problems
must receive social and economic assistance and support to not only
live substance free but have access to services and housing that support
them being fully functioning mothers enabled and empowered to raise
their children and not have them taken away to become a part of a failed
child welfare system. It is only when this country redresses these
and other problems will we be a country that has ended the sexual and
reproductive oppression of women and realized true reproductive justice.

Loretta Ross and Serena Garcia:

As activists, we have insisted that reproductive justice evolves
simultaneously as a theory, a strategy, and a practice. As a critical theory,
it incorporates an intersectional analysis based on the human rights framework
applied to reproductive politics.

When we conform, we lose sight of who we really are. By centering our
analysis on articulating what it would take to end the reproductive oppression
of women of color, we break out of the endless circularity of abortion debates
– pro or con – and seek a new understanding of our lived experiences.

Aspen Baker:

Roe, and the zero-sum/win-lose attitude that surrounds it, has defined the conversation about abortion for far too long. Yes, the legality of abortion is the crux of this war, but one of the ways out of war is to  xpand the conversation and raise new voices and perspectives on divisive issues. We can do this by addressing many important reproductive and sexual health issues that have not gotten the attention they need and deserve and by creating new ways to think and understand the role of abortion in all our lives. Right now, all of us are excited and overwhelmed not just by the promise and practice of unity over  partisanship, but by real-life examples of what can happen when you address people’s real needs and give them the opportunity to make change in their own lives and those of their communities. Let us learn from these lessons but most importantly, let us recognize, support, promote and help grow the efforts of those who are already doing it well and finding success, like Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Gay-Straight Alliance Network and many others whose strategies have been under valued and under appreciated in an era defined by Roe. The truth is an experience with abortion is often just one part of a person’s story and its time we listened to the whole story, and responded and supported the whole person.