On the Anniversary of Roe – A Call to Action

Kate Michelman

Its more than 40 years since I sat in a hospital conference room, interrogated by men who held my fate, my family, and my choice in their hands. After all these years, I can still feel the humiliation, the shame, and the anger.

This article originally appeared at Amplify.

Amidst all the deserved attention being paid to
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the earthquake in Haiti, health care reform, the
Senate election in Massachusetts, there is another deserving issue that goes
largely unnoticed unless it is in crises– except for one day a year.  Rather
than bemoan the lack of attention or the reasons for it, I want to use the
occasion of this anniversary of Roe v. Wade to remind all of us of the
importance of this issue to every woman, indeed every American.

It has been a journey of more than 40 years since I sat in a hospital
conference room, interrogated by men who held my fate, my family, and my choice
in their hands. After all these years, I can still feel the humiliation, the
shame, and the anger as though those doctors were sitting in front of me now,
demanding to know whether I was capable of dressing my children in the morning
and being intimate with my husband at night. This indignity was in the service
of deciding whether I met the criteria for a diagnosis as " unfit for
childbearing" necessary for permission to have an abortion in a hospital
rather than a back alley.

Roe v. Wade changed all that by recognizing a woman’s
constitutional right to make decisions in matters of pregnancy, childbearing
and abortion in privacy, safety and with dignity. It saved women from the shame
and degradation of illegal abortion and its humiliating consequences. And Roe
was an important milestone for women in their long and difficult journey to
full equality, dignity and economic security.

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I have travelled a great distance since those wrenching days in 1969, and so
has America. The choice denied me, that
the review board and the government had the power to make, has now been recognized
as every woman’s constitutional right. The majority of Americans believe it
should remain so.

Sadly, those who would take women back to the days of the interrogation room,
the back alley, or the prospect of forced childbearing, a possibility so unfathomable
for most people, so distant that we are reluctant to believe it possible, have
made progress over the years. Throughout the nation, millions of women face
increasing obstacles to effective education about their sexual health and
access to reproductive health care. Abortion remains stigmatized and
marginalized, women who decide to have an abortion are considered
irresponsible, doctors who perform them are demonized, harassed and even
murdered as in the tragic case of the death of Dr. Tiller in Kansas this past
year. Comprehensive sex education nationwide is a long way from becoming a
reality inspite of overwhelming evidence of its positive impact on the lives
and health of young people. Family planning and contraceptive care remain a
target of the right wing at the state and local levels.

We witnessed a generational shift with the election of President Obama. We had
reason to be elated. Democrats took control of the both the House and Senate. We
thought finally we could stop the assault of the Bush years.

There has been
progress. Abstinence only education funding has been curbed and the government
now is focused on comprehensive sex education. But health care reform proved
once again that we must never take our rights and liberties for granted, that
we must be actively vigilant and that elections are not an end in themselves
but rather a means to an end. The willingness of National Democratic leaders to
secure passage of health reform by prohibiting abortion coverage under private
insurance plans represents a significant setback for women. It must be a
wake-up call to the advocacy community generally, and the women’s rights
community in particular, that political power without accountability will
always fail us. It must remain our mission to continually set the course, to
define the values and to demand that our political friends stand up for what is
right.

On this anniversary of Roe, in the context of the extraordinary election of
President Obama, America stands at the brink; but we have not yet crossed it. Our
freedom belongs to us; it is our right, and it is our responsibility to protect
it; and we have the power to do so. Decades ago when Roe was not yet imagined
and abortion was in so many places illegal, a small but passionate movement of
Americans decided to transform the world. They did. Today the movement they
have bequeathed to the next generation of pro-choice activists is large and
powerful and vast; the freedom they left us remains in jeopardy; and to save
it, we need only activate, with a sense of personal responsibility and dire
urgency, the movement they built.

The younger generation bear an even bigger responsibility and face an even
greater danger than my generation did–the possible loss of the entire right. Young
people today do have the choice that Roe made possible…that we all need to be
mindful of the risk to women’s basic right to privacy the other side would
gladly rescind…evidenced by the obstacles that women, particularly poor
women, must tackle when faced with the most important and often difficult
decision of their lives -lack of facilities and trained doctors, the need to
travel many miles to obtain care…imagine oneself in the situation I was in 40
years ago today and the ramifications for women if this right is overturned. We
have a tendency in these times of intense media hype over sensationalized
events to overlook or take for granted precious but vulnerable constitutional
rights such as the this one. We must not. This can be the cause of the next
generation.

It’s been said that all the great civil rights battles have been fought and
won. But for the rights that matter most, the fight never ends. There has not
been a single day since 1973 when this right has been secure, nor has there
been a single day when it’s been more endangered than now. And the danger isn’t
the far right. They’ve been around forever, and when we’re paying attention, we
beat them every time. The most insidious danger is the apathy and
inattentiveness of the mainstream/middle. In our history, we always turn to the
young in such moments.

If we fight hard and lose, that will be a tragedy. But if we lose because we
didn’t fight, that will be a crime — and our guilt will far exceed that of the
religious right. We depend on the new generation to know this and act.

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