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The Rocky Road to Roe v. Wade

On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in the case of Roe v. Wade. This established that the constitutional right to privacy included a person’s right to make their own medical decisions.

Therefore, the ruling meant a woman choosing to have an abortion must be able to do so without interference from the government.

Imagine that. Grown women granted the right of bodily sovereignty like the adults that they are.

In 1965, illegal abortions accounted for one-sixth of all pregnancy and childbirth-related fatalities. Since abortion has been legalized, it is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States. The lives and reproductive health of countless women have been saved thanks to Roe v. Wade.

Abortions had been practiced legally in most cultures for thousands of years. Neither the State nor the Church placed any prohibitions on abortion, and they were regularly performed by midwives, apothecaries, and homeopaths.

But by the 19th century, several factors emerged causing abortion to be redefined as a criminal and sinful act. One of the justifications for ending abortion was the primitive methods employed and the high rate of mortality. It was felt that by criminalizing abortion, women could be “protected” from the perils of terminating a pregnancy.

While there was suffragette backlash when anti-abortion legislation passed, at that time women were being encouraged to embrace their traditional roles as wives and mothers, as well as low-paid, unskilled laborers. The budding capitalist industrial boom, which required workers, depended on the fairer sex fulfilling these roles. Women’s rights and voluntary motherhood did not fit in with America’s economic plan.

Of course, outlawing abortion did nothing to stop women from having abortions. It only made them more dangerous and, in many cases, deadly. “Back-alley” abortions became commonplace, and they were often performed with unsanitary methods, either by the woman herself or unskilled practitioners. This led to many women suffering needless injuries or death.

By the 1960s, the women’s movement tackled the taboo subject of abortion head-on and brought it back to the forefront of American consciousness. The movement saw women sharing their stories of hellish illegal abortions and lobbied for the right to abortion on-demand.

Reform was a long, slow process, though, with some states initially allowing abortion only under certain circumstances, such as the mother being under age 15 or if the pregnancy resulted from rape.

In 1970, New York State began allowing abortion on-demand through the 24th week of pregnancy, provided it was terminated by a doctor in a medical facility. A few other states passed similar laws soon after. Women flocked to the few medical establishments that were available to get legal abortions. The caveat: Women had to have the means to pay for the abortion and/or travel expenses. This was out of reach for many people, so illegal abortions remained very common.

Then, on January 22, 1973, The United States Supreme Court ruled that:

“the right of privacy…founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

The Court’s ruling wasn’t a blanket OK for abortion under any circumstances. The decision placed the following constraints:

  1. No restrictions during the first trimester
  2. No restrictions on second trimester abortions, unless it’s determined the mother is in danger
  3. For the protection of a viable fetus, third trimester abortions are not allowed.

Three years later, the Hyde Amendment restricted the use of federal money to fund abortions, which mainly affected Medicaid users. So this legislation targets mostly low-income women, essentially denying them access to abortion services.

A study conducted in 2000 asserted that up to 35% of women eligible for Medicaid would have had an abortion had the funding been available. Tragically, women who need it most can’t access abortion services simply because they are poor.

As with most things in our society, safe abortion procedures have always been—and continue to be—readily available for the wealthy, whether they’re legal or not.

Seems fair. If you’ve suffered a grievous head injury, that is.

Over 45 years later, Roe v. Wade is still passionately debated, discussed, and dissected. Today, however, we’re in real danger of taking a major step backward, as many states are now enacting draconian anti-abortion bans that will adversely affect the lives and health of millions of women.

We are not unthinking incubators. A woman’s decision to choose when and if to start a family is hers and hers alone. If this right to bodily sovereignty is denied, women are no longer free — they are hostages of the state.

And we will not allow this.

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