This week, Roe v. Wade turns 40. The social and political effects of this decision—which struck down state restrictions on abortion—have been profound, but have they helped women? Four decades into this social experiment, it’s worth a look.
From the pro-life perspective, Roe is often portrayed as the beginning of an era of legalized murder. From the pro-choice perspective, Roe levels the playing field between men and women by allowing women to postpone childbearing until they are in an economic position to do so responsibly. It marks the departure from the “Mad Men” world in which a working woman was viewed more in terms of her uterus than her brain.
Both perspectives are misleading. Pro-lifers should note that Roe did not, strictly speaking, legalize abortion in a nation where it previously was illegal. It just prohibited states from restricting a practice that was already legal in some states and which women and midwives had been carrying out quietly for centuries.
Abortion advocates, by contrast, must come to terms with the fact that legal access to abortion has not brought women to full equality – far from it. Yes, many women today occupy positions of which their grandmothers could only have dreamt. Yes, many women have the luxury of choosing how to find their own balance between work and family. Yes, the notion of women as primary breadwinners while their husbands stay home with children has become much more mainstream. Yet, women are still paid less than their male counterparts for the same work, and much more needs to be done.
Besides, it is debatable whether women truly have a choice about abortion or whether others exercise that choice for them. Many low-income women are pressured into abortion because their jobs will not give them time off, because they lack the family or financial support to stay in school, or because they fear they will lose their jobs. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 69 percent of women who have an abortion subsist below or just over the poverty line (about $11,000 – $22,000 a year for a single woman and $15,000 to $30,000 a year for a family).
With Roe, abortion became the ultimate wedge issue—where spin control, sound bites, and fear tactics trump good public policy and common sense. Want to disrupt the kind of bipartisan conversation we Americans need to have? Wave a coat hanger or a picture of an aborted fetus or claim there is an attack on women’s health. For groups on both sides of the abortion issue, abortion politics has become big business; the current destructive stalemate between the sides becomes their meal ticket. In this polarized environment, we have lost sight of the women in the cross-fire who are facing crisis pregnancies or wondering whether to bring a special-needs child into the world. Compassion has given way to one-upmanship. As a result, the women and their children whom both sides claim as their motivation are neglected by both sides.
For example, we see this behavior in New York State where Governor Cuomo is jeopardizing a women’s equality bill that addresses violence against women, pay equity, and human trafficking. His efforts to add sweeping abortion language that would supersede laws mandating parental consent, public funding of abortion, and even bans on late term abortion will certainly make it more difficult to pass real reform to help women.
As a feminist, I refuse to concede that the pinnacle of the struggle for women’s equality is the right to have an unwanted pregnancy surgically ripped from my body. In fact, I refuse to believe that abortion has anything to do with equality at all. I should just be equal under the law. Unfortunately, abortion advocates successfully linked abortion to women’s rights, and it became a line in the sand that has assumed a political significance far above its actual importance to women’s equality.
Most critically, Roe has nationalized the abortion issue. The federal judiciary, by reserving the right to decide what restrictions on abortion are constitutional, has turned the symbol of abortion politics from a crowded city council chamber or a legislative committee room to the marble steps of the Supreme Court. Thus, with so many single-issue voters on both sides of the issue, the judicial nomination process (and the senatorial and presidential elections on which this process depends) has turned into a referendum on abortion rights for many people—drawing scrutiny away from the host of other issues that judges, senators, and presidents address to a single hot-button issue.
However, there is hope. One of the most overlooked achievements of the Affordable Care Act was the inclusion of the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (formerly part of the Pregnant Women Support Act). This provision gives grants to states to establish pilot programs aimed at assisting women in crisis pregnancies and helping them bring their pregnancies to term. Seventeen states are running successful pilot programs that help pregnant and parenting college women complete their degrees and find jobs, help pregnant teens complete their high school education, and provide job training and other support. None of this grant money can be used for abortion.
Under the ACA, pregnancy is no longer a pre-existing condition, and women receive pre-natal and post-natal care. Breast and cervical cancer screenings will be included in health plans. Women in all economic situations, especially the 19 million women who are not currently insured, will receive comprehensive health care coverage and not be charged more than men for the same plans just because they are women. The ACA was a real victory for the health of women and babies, despite what demagogues on either side of the abortion issue have asserted to the contrary.
On January 22, men and women around the country will be celebrating or mourning the passage of Roe. Unless there is a united front to put pregnant women first, Roe will continue to provide a wedge issue, an excuse to raise money, or a reason to March on Washington. Women deserve better. Children deserve better. America deserves common-sense solutions that empower women to choose life.
Kristen Day is the Executive Director of Democrats For Life of America and the author of Democrats For Life, Pro-life Politics and the Silenced Majority
Photo Credit: AP Photos