Commentary Human Rights

Roe is About Women’s Rights

Soraya Chemaly

Roe also acknowledges a related fact: until its passage women’s bodies, legally speaking, functioned like production facilities, holding tanks, regulated environments, the property of the men who impregnated them.

“Most Americans under 30 don’t know Roe was about abortion.”  

According to the Pew Research Forum, the majority of survey respondents under 30-years old answering questions about abortion attitudes revealed the following:

  • 41 percent thought the case might have to do with the death penalty, the environment or could not name the subject matter and 16 percent thought it had to do with school desegregation,
  • Here’s the really depressing kicker: 68 percent of Republicans under 30 knew the content of the Roe decision compared with only 57 percent of Democrats,
  • A full 74 percent of those who support overturning Roe consider abortion a “crucial issue” or “one of many crucial issues.”
  • Among supporters? 31 percent.

Both Michelle Bornstein and Sarah Kliff had to type these words out, see them on a screen and push a “send” button after they wrote them for The Washington Post.  I just did it and think I’m breaking into hives. 

Just to be clear, Roe V. Wade IS NOT, to quote a Twitter friend, “Two ways to cross a river.”

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As Gail Collins once pointed out, in 1912, maybe in between the jail time she served for breaking the law and providing safe birth control to women, Margaret Sanger (also charged with obscenity for talking about her work) wrote an article called Things That Every Girl Should Know. They’re things Every BOY SHOULD KNOW,  too. And this is one of them.

Forty years ago today, Roe v Wade legalized abortion. It established every American woman’s constitutional right to an abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy. Our bodies, we get to decide what happens to them. It’s a right.  This took time and involved several constitutional interpretations. But, Roe extended several constitutional rights that were denied to women having to do with privacy, autonomy and due process.  Which sounds abstract but isn’t.

Roe means we are far, far less likely to DIE.

Or be mutilated, suffer from infections or any number of other horrible things related to pregnancy, birth and abortion.

It means, not only do we not have to die, but no one can “let us” die if we desperately want to live.

It means doctors can save our lives if we have ectopic pregnancies or cancer. 

It means we don’t have to be tied for life to abusive, violent spouses

Or to men who deliberately sabotage our birth control.

It means we can use modern medicine and procedures to intervene and end miscarriages safely and quickly.

It means we can manage, to a small degree, heartbreak.

It means we can plan our families and take care of them.

It means that we cannot be forced to carry rape pregnancies against our wills even when our rapists want us to.

It means we don’t go to jail for something all women, by virtue of having female bodies, must seriously think about during 30 years of fertility.

It means that you, or people you know, (at least one-third of all women by the age of 45) who have had one—for whatever reason—have been able to safely and legally.

Turns out that these facts are a really tough pill for some people to swallow. Which is why some states, like Mississippi, have made it all but impossible for a woman to actually find an abortion clinic or doctor. And other states, like Texas, North Dakota, Virginia, Arizona are doing the same.  In Alabama last week, the Supreme Court ruled that fetuses are “children.”  Both 2011 and 2012 were record years in legislative attempts to erode or eliminate Roe.

Prior to Roeaccording to the Center for Reproductive Rights, “between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegally induced abortions occur[red] annually in the United States. As many as 5,000 to 10,000 women died per year following illegal abortions and many others suffered  severe physical and psychological injury.

Roe is a critically important interpretation of our constitution that extended rights to women that they were previously deprived of. Just because we’re humans born in the United States doesn’t mean we miraculously don’t have human rights issues. The right to choose, if and when and how, to reproduce is a fundamental human right. Roe protects that right for American women. Something they did not have before.

And, Roe did more than that. The right to make decisions regarding our own bodies, to manage our own reproduction has practical pluses. We get to participate in the world more equally. Go to school. Get degrees. Get and keep jobs. Run for office. Take care of our families to the best of our abilities. Leave abusive spouses. Not be prey to the vagaries of other people’s actions or wills.

The degree to which we’ve failed to educate people, as we clearly haven’t, on the legal ramifications of overturning or whittling away at Roe, is shocking.

Some people, usually the can’t tell a pregnancy test from a swizzle stick set, think Roe should be overturned as a matter of state rights. Please. What about, say, interracial marriage? Want to do that, too?  Or maybe slavery. THAT’s a good idea.

I know that the ethics of pregnancy are complicated. All people do, especially pregnant people. According to Roe, restrictions on abortion in second and their trimesters could only be established if the state could demonstrate a “compelling interest” in potential life. But, while everyone might agree that ethical compassion is a necessary component of decisions regarding how pregnancies are managed, to date, Roe‘s opponents have yet to demonstrate that they understand that women themselves have “compelling interests”—like life, liberty, autonomy. The only way you can justify a position in which a woman does not make her own abortion decisions is if you believe she is not ethically and morally capable as a matter of her gender. It is THIS idea—that women are fully autonomous, morally independent, capable human beings, that opponents of Roe have been continuously attacking since the dawn of recorded time. The last 40 years of relentless legislative, judicial, religiously-injected conservative political activism focused on women and their bodies is just this generation’s fundamentalist backlash against a modernity that seeks not only to say women are equal, but allow them to act and be equal.

My intuition, based on these surveys, is that many people are assuming that women’s fundamental rights are and always have been as inalienable and fundamental as men’s in this country. History clearly demonstrates that this is not the case. Why do you think we don’t talk about “reproductive rights” for men? The “norm” (ie. just plain old “rights”) is male. We have to qualify the rights with a “reproductive” only when we’re talking about male-deviant females. Simply because fetuses are not part of men’s bodies does not make them any less part of women’s. All of our laws are structured to reflect a world in which reproduction takes place and is managed outside of a body. Yet that is only the case for men. Roe acknowledges the difference. It refuses to pit the rights of a fetus against those of the woman for this reason. Roe also acknowledges a related fact: until its passage women’s bodies, legally speaking, functioned like production facilities, holding tanks, regulated environments, the property of the men who impregnated them. Do I really have to go on here???

The fact remains today, in regard to Roe, as it did in 2005 only perhaps even more true, that the rights I am describing remain secure, really secure, in only 20 US states. It doesn’t inspire confidence that the younger a survey respondent was, the less important they thought a woman’s right to an abortion was. This is entirely understandable result of not teaching the history of women’s rights as civil rights, applauding the accomplishments of those that fought for women’s freedoms and equality, or acknowledging in mainstream media that feminist activism as ongoing.

It’s especially important now because the problem we have is not that Roe will be overturned. It is that opponents have been degrading and dismantling Roe by proxy since 1973. And the more public opinion seems to turn against them, the more aggressive and systematic they seem to be. They are using laws never intended to apply to women and abortion to intimidate, investigate, arrest, prosecute and imprison us based on the same views that inform their anti-Roe agenda. So, while Roe should have meant that Angela Carder didn’t die, she did. Or that Laura Pemberton wasn’t taken from her home, tied to a bed and forced to have Cesarean surgery, she was. Or that Bei Bei Shuai wouldn’t face murder charges because she was filled with despair while pregnant and tried to commit suicide, but she is. Roe was originally based on “four constitutional pillars” of which only two remain today. The result is that states can, and are, proposing and passing fetal “rights” statutes in defiance of women’s constitutional rights, medical facts, scientific research and with no regard for the complicated, often dangerous, urgent contexts that are unique to every pregnancy. Poorer, darker women pay the highest price.

There should be posters on every school campus that read: Roe is what allows American girls and women of childbearing age to plan their families and live without fear of unwanted pregnancies, debilitating infections or death caused by illegal abortions or complications caused by pregnancy and childbirth.

Given the fact that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 either you or someone you know has had or will have an abortion. It’s no one’s business why. Roe v. Wade isn’t about women’s choices, it’s about their rights. All girls and women have the right to make decisions for themselves. That’s what Roe is. 

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