So, as you might have heard, today is the 35th Birthday/Anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, which was handed down on January 22, 1973. The organizers of blog for choice day have suggested we all write about why it’s important to “vote pro-choice.” While it’s true that it’s important to vote “pro-choice,” I want to write about more than that — why it’s important to vote for someone who really understands what it means to want reproductive justice. In order to understand this, it’s important to know how far Roe got us, and how far we’ve got to go.
Roe was a huge step. It said that the right to abortion was constitutionally-grounded and was too important — to fundamental — to be left to the whims of the state governments or to come and go at the will of the majority. Though the language of the decision had more to say about doctors than about women, the message of Blackmun’s decision was loud and clear: women have a fundamental constitutional right to control their reproductive lives, not to let their reproductive lives control them.
Immediately after Roe, Medicaid funds became available for poor women to have abortions, and the right became a reality for many millions of American women. Since then, however, the times have not been so sweet for reproductive freedom. Facing pressure, violence, and over the top licensing requirements from the states, clinics have closed, leaving women in 87% of US counties without an abortion provider. The Hyde Amendment was passed and continues to bar poor women from receiving Medicaid funding for their abortions, with few exceptions. As Francis Kissling and Kate Michelman, two longtime leaders of the abortion rights movement (Kissling at Catholics for a Free Choice and Michalman at NARAL)
write in this week’s Nation, the US has gone from being a leader in reproductive health access to a laggard.
While Roe was not overturned, it was systematically eviscerated, and long-accepted reproductive health services such as birth control became controversial. These days the United States has one of the most punitive and regressive policies on reproductive health in the developed world. To reverse this turn to the far right, women’s health advocates must seek not only to protect abortion rights but to restore the whole range of reproductive health services, pushing for this broader agenda to be at the center of any progressive platform.
Looking at Europe, we can see how things would be different if reproductive health policy attended to women’s needs rather than the demands of a fundamentalist Christian right. Almost without exception, in Western European countries where abortions are legal, they are included in national healthcare plans. They do not require parental consent or notice for adolescents seeking abortion; contraceptives are reasonably priced, covered by health insurance and often available without prescription; teens and adults have access to emergency contraception in hospitals or over the counter at pharmacies; and abstinence-only sex education is rare.
But as Michelman and Kissling recognize, today (on Roe’s birthday) we need to be clear about the fact that fighting for Roe and fighting for reproductive justice is more than catching up with Europe with regard to healthcare coverage and contraceptive equity, and to maintaining our more liberal abortion policies during the first trimester of pregnancy (a state of affairs Michelman and Kissling fail to mention). We’ve got to do that (including getting rid of abstinence only education, repealing the Hyde Amendment, and refusing to accept state laws that are targeted to regulate abortion providers (so-called TRAP laws)), but we’ve got to do more. We have to respect women who don’t give birth and those who do. As bloggers have often noted, it seems like the anti-abortion forces stop caring about the fetus once it’s born (if they ever really cared about it as something more than a prop). A real reproductive justice agenda can’t do this. When women do give birth, they should have a host of options — all covered by insurance, public or private — including birthing centers, hospitals, at-home midwives. They should receive free or covered prenatal care, no matter what. They should be supported not scolded. And they – and their partners – should receive paid family leave regardless of the size of their employer or how many sick/vacation days they have used/accrued. Oh, and they should have access to subsidized professional daycare in which parents feel comfortable leaving their kids.
All of this said, I hope it’s clear why it’s important to vote for someone who is not just pro-choice, but who is pro reproductive justice, and pro-woman. Pro-choice is not enough if our goal is achieving equality and justice in more than name alone.
It’s important not only to vote for candidates who care about and understand reproductive justice, but also who will be willing to, as Hillary Clinton said last night (on another topic), “go to the mat” for reproductive justice. Who understand that Roe, while important, is little more than a battlecry without a reproductive justice agenda.
Frankly, I’m not sure that such a candidate exists in the presidential race right now. So perhaps the question for us in 2008 should be not why it’s important for us to vote pro-choice or pro-justice, but how we can recruit and elect leaders who understand why it’s important for them to support reproductive justice without compromise.