Roe v. Wade at twenty-five – progress for the pro-choice movement is mixed as Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion reaches 25th anniversary

Roe v. Wade at twenty-five – progress for the pro-choice movement is mixed as Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion reaches 25th anniversary – Column

The pro-choice movement is celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision making abortion legal.

But it’s not the happiest party. Women are having more and more difficulty getting access to safe abortions.

“In the twenty-five years since the Roe v. Wade decision, almost all the steps have been backward,” says Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the basic right to abortion, but it has also given legislative bodies increasing authority to restrict access.”

“The choice to have an abortion is more difficult for women today than at any time since Roe v. Wade,” agrees Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL). “1997 was a dramatic year. It was probably the worst.”

Last year, the 105th Congress banned access to privately funded abortions ,at overseas military hospitals for servicewomen and military dependents, banned abortions for women in federal prison, prohibited insurance for federal employees from covering abortions, and prohibited abortions for Medicaid recipients except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest.

The new law affecting women in the military prohibits servicewomen from getting abortions in military hospitals, even if they pay for them. This is particularly onerous for female soldiers stationed in countries where abortion is illegal.

Feldt says some prisons go so far as to refuse to transport the prisoner even if Planned Parenthood agrees to do the abortion free of charge.

The infringement of the right to abortion comes not just from government, but from the private sector as well. Catholic hospitals–and even some secular ones–are gobbling up other hospitals and closing off the abortion option (see “Blocking Women’s Health Care,” by Melanie Conklin, January issue).

The campaign against third-trimester “partial-birth abortion” has also tilted the debate. These late-term abortions are relatively rare and often occur when something has gone terribly wrong with the pregnancy or when the mother’s health is in danger.

Legislation inspired by the partial-birth-abortion debate would pave the way for overturning Roe. “While they have-told you that those bans protect against a gruesome procedure that occurs in the third trimester of a pregnancy, the definition these laws use reaches any safe and common method of abortion from the end of the first trimester onward,” says Catherine Weiss, the director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “While it has been sold as a ban on a rare, late procedure, none of the bans have limits in terms of when the ban applies. They do not describe a discrete procedure. They describe abortion.”

Most of the damage to Roe v. Wade is happening at the state level. In 1997, state legislatures introduced 405 anti-choice measures (compared with 220 in 1996). States enacted fifty-five (compared with fourteen in 1996).

According to Planned Parenthood, 84 percent of all U.S. counties now have no abortion provider, and many stales are imposing such restrictions as parental consent and mandatory waiting periods.

Waiting periods are especially troublesome to poor women and those who live in rural areas. Many have to travel to other states and take days off from work to get to an abortion provider.

“If you have to appear at an abortion clinic twice and you have to travel 500 miles, you’ve got big problems,” says Weiss. She cites stories of women who take Greyhound buses into the city to get abortion counseling, then return to the station to sleep at night in order to save money on motel costs until they can have the abortion.

Choosing to have an abortion is a very difficult decision for a woman to make. Many of these new restrictions are designed to make it even more wrenching. Ultimately, no matter how difficult a moral decision any individual abortion might be, that decision rightly belongs to a woman and her doctor.

Elizabeth Karlin, medical director of the Women’s Medical Center in Madison, Wisconsin, says the atmosphere outside her clinic has changed. Several years ago, crowds of protesters greeted her every day. Now, she says, “they don’t need to have demonstrations outside my offices because they have the governor, they have the Department of Health and Human Services, they have the state on their side.” Wisconsin now requires two in-person visits, counseling, and a twenty-four-hour waiting period for all women who have abortions. The most recent state budget also would exclude the use of public funds “for direct referral, or [referral] through an intermediary” for abortion services. Bills pending in the Wisconsin legislature include one that would create twenty new crimes against a fetus and make it a criminal offense to destroy a fertilized egg, another that would allow officials to detain a pregnant woman to protect the fetus, and another that would permit pharmacists to refuse to fill any prescription they oppose for moral or religious reasons.

Medical schools are a battleground as well, since fewer and fewer of them teach abortion procedures. According to a recent study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, about one out of ten obstetric and gynecology programs in the country currently requires abortion training, and only 12 percent of medical schools make a regular practice of teaching it. Approximately one-third offer no training at all. The average age of doctors practicing abortion is rising. “Those doctors remember what it was like when abortion was illegal and women were dying,” says Gloria Feldt of Planned Parenthood. Today, many young doctors would rather not take up a practice that requires wearing a bulletproof vest to work.

“It is possible that Roe could be overturned in the courts or overturned legislatively in our lifetime,” says Feldt. “That’s not inevitable. It will happen only if we let it happen. At this time, it’s the anti-choice crowd that is loud and organized. The pro-choice crowd is complacent. A lot of the young ones don’t understand what it was like.”

When Abortion Was Illegal, a documentary produced and directed by Dorothy Fadiman, is an antidote to amnesia. The film documents the history of abortion in the United States before Roe v. Wade. Early in the Republic, abortion was generally legal, Fadiman reports. Until the mid-1800s, the state and the church allowed abortions “if they occurred before `quickening,’ when the mother first perceived fetal movement.”

Strict prohibitions on abortion started to come about when doctors began to professionalize, and to root out their competition–midwives. At about the same time, society began to condemn women who sought abortions as selfishly shirking their duty.

“By the turn of the century,” Fadiman concludes, “both abortion and birth control were illegal in most states.”

Against the law or not, thousands and thousands of American women still had abortions each year for the next century. The women who pursued illegal abortions, or induced abortions themselves, suffered all kinds of horrible complications, and many of them died.

One woman in the film, identified only as Rosalie, tells the story of an abortion she experienced as a teenager, when the procedure was still illegal. “The day came and they took me to a motel several miles from Boise. It was a dirty motel and I was alone with this woman. I remember what she looked like really well. She was dirty, too. And not friendly . . . really divorced from the proceedings. She gave me a cervical puncture. I remember the steel tool. Then she told me to go and that there would be blood, but I would be all right. But the fact is that I didn’t abort. I just bled a lot. It was incredibly painful and I got a bad infection. They [the people responsible for the botched abortion] started to look for a doctor because I kept bleeding and bleeding and not aborting. The doctor, he gave me some medication to make me abort. I aborted at home, so that if he were caught, he would be able to prove that the process had been initiated before he became involved.” (To learn more about Fadiman’s trilogy on the abortion-rights movement, write Tamar Williams, Concentric Media, 5801 Williamsburg Blvd., Arlington, VA 22207. Or visit their web site at:

Despite the recent setbacks to reproductive choice, we haven’t yet returned to the dark days before abortion was legal. But unless the pro-choice movement fights for continued access to safe, legal abortion, it won’t matter whether Roe v. Wade stands or falls.

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