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.

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”


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