(WOMENSENEWS)–As a wounded Roe v. Wade approaches its 35th anniversary on Jan. 22, our popular narrative urgently begs for a full-scale, ground-up offensive to enshrine reproductive rights as human rights and create a more durable approach than the right to privacy–however valuable–has ever given women.
Instead we get William Kristol–who cynically advised Republicans two decades ago to remove the anti-abortion plank to win elections but to focus on restrictions that humiliate and endanger women–starting last week as a regular New York Times columnist. By paragraph four he had worked in a reference to "life" as interchangeable with restricting women’s control over their own bodies.
And on Tuesday, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s "Choice at Risk" report gave the nation a grade of D-Minus on access to contraception and abortion.
Last year, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court drove a stake through Roe’s heart by stripping away the principle that women’s health is primary in its Gonzales v. Carhart decision.
But while most of the Republican presidential candidates compete to out-anti-Roe each other all is not lost. Not yet. Voters also have a lineup of Democratic hopefuls vying for the most pro-choice mantle and women are turning out in record numbers in the Democratic primaries.
So there’s hope in strong political engagement and in asking these questions of the candidates seeking your vote:
"Where do you stand on the federal Freedom of Choice Act that would guarantee women’s right to childbearing choices without coercion or discrimination?"
"Will you take leadership to ensure that women are first-class citizens deemed morally capable and legally guaranteed the civil right to make their own childbearing choices?"
We Thought Roe Was Permanent
Some of us thought Roe v. Wade fixed reproductive self-determination within the firmament of other fundamental constitutional guarantees of liberty and justice for all.
Now, evidence of just how far into retreat this landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision has been pushed is all around.
Pro-Roe swing vote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006 and was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, who as a U.S. Justice Department attorney authored the incremental strategy to overturn Roe. Even before Alito’s sinister arrival, the high court, in its 1992 ruling on Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, allowed legislators to restrict access to abortion so long as they don’t create an "undue burden."
Thus far, almost no burden has been judged undue as the majority of states rushed to pass laws that reduce women’s access to safe, legal abortion.
Last year’s Gonzales v. Carhart decision drove a nail into women’s coffins by upholding the federal abortion ban, signaling that the new Bush Court will also allow Congress into the act of limiting women’s reproductive rights.
Women’s Stories Burst Out
When Roe legalized abortion based on the right-to-privacy precedent of Griswold v. Connecticut, which made birth control legal in 1965, the reality of abortion burst out of the closet. Women’s stories–long hidden in deepest, darkest silence–poured forth until everyone knew this wasn’t some aberration in the procreative chain of events but something that affected your mother, your daughter, your sister, yourself.
But today, while it’s acceptable to discuss many sexual matters in explicit terms–from oral sex to teen pregnancy–not so for abortion. Just look at how women and their childbearing decisions get treated in the popular culture.
The movie "Juno" brings us a pregnant teen who gives her child up for adoption, while the tabloids offer up Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s 16-year-old real life and really pregnant sister who opts for single motherhood.
There’s also "Knocked Up," about a woman with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. After its strong box office run the movie is near the top of DVD rentals, with nary a mention of abortion except as a verboten subject, a less than savory choice that the pregnant protagonists wouldn’t deign to consider.
While the popular media blasts us with "Juno," Jamie Lynn and "Knocked Up," stories other women tell me in increasingly hushed tones–in e-mails, letters, chance meetings at the grocery store, after my speeches–are missing from the discourse.
One example: "The option of legal abortion enabled my future husband and me to grow up, establish a stable relationship, and become financially and emotionally able to nurture the two beautiful children we would, in time, have."
It’s often overlooked that abortion is as much part of family formation as childbearing. Women don’t have abortions because they fail to value children, but because they value children so highly, they want to give birth when they can care for them well.
"I used to be against abortion, but now I realize this is about my health and I have changed my mind. I wrote to Jerry Falwell about this." Another example.
The Issue is Justice
You never know what you will do until you’re confronted with the situation. Rev. Tom Davis, whose 2005 book "Sacred Choices" documented clergy leadership to legalize abortion, believes the issue is justice. "One could not disconnect the rights of women from their reproductive rights. The right to control one’s own body made all the other rights possible."
"The trauma was the unintended pregnancy, not the abortion. But I had to travel several hours to find the nearest doctor. He was forced by law to ‘counsel’ me to continue the pregnancy even though I had already consulted my minister, and to make me wait an extra day. I had to take three days off work; what about women who can’t afford that?" A third example.
Here’s my own story: I stood in Jamie Lynn Spears’ shoes 50 years ago. But I married my high school sweetheart, had three children, took the birth control pill for 12 years, then opted for sterilization.
I chose to give attention to my three children, get an education, restore my health and work to supplement our modest family income.
That should have been that from a procreation point of view, but it wasn’t quite. My former husband and I, too young when we married to sustain a mature relationship, eventually divorced. A few years later–29 years ago now–I met the love of my life. We considered having a child, but we each had children who still needed our support, and although there was a chance my sterilization could be reversed and I could become pregnant, the odds were slim.
That’s how I learned humility, not judgment, is in order when we look at the various decisions that women make about childbearing. Before then, I was simply oblivious to the stories behind other women’s choices. Now I understand that when it comes to pregnancy and childbearing, every choice involves both sacrifice and freedom. That’s the moral case for reproductive justice.
And that’s why this anniversary of Roe calls for nothing less than a ringing affirmation of women’s rights as human rights–rather than merely privacy rights–and a pledge to advance laws and appoint judges who assert respect for women’s lives and human rights.
Only a politician who offers that is worthy of my vote.
Gloria Feldt is co-author with Kathleen Turner of the forthcoming "Send Yourself Roses," and former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.