When A Right Is Not Enough

The 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is an auspicious moment for celebration. What exactly we celebrate, however, is a matter of some concern to me, and should give all reproductive rights advocates pause as we near this annual rite.

As a scholar of reproductive rights, a person of faith, and a mother of four beautiful, wanted children, I value deeply my freedom to choose. But on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I am often chilled by the usual festivities, because it is not Roe that protects my right in 2007. My ability to choose is protected by my class, my age, and my geographical location.

In 1973, Roe held the promise of equal access for all American women. Sarah Weddington bravely fought at the Supreme Court for the dignity of all women to control their reproductive lives, making no distinction between groups of women, but rather arguing that in the quest for reproductive freedom all women should stand as equals before the law. Since that landmark decision, however, all three branches of government and both major political parties have chipped away at a woman's right, undermining that fundamental and moderate decision to the point that few can claim a right per se. Through funding bans, waiting periods, limitations on teens, declining numbers of providers, and myriad other barriers to access, there is no longer a legal right to abortion. Eighty-seven percent of American counties have no abortion provider in 2008. Thousands of American women each year are denied abortion services, or delay their abortions because they lack the resources to pay for the service. There is, at best, the freedom to seek an abortion; we negotiate that freedom through our social standing.

The Freedom of Choice Act, supported by reproductive rights advocates in Congress, would codify the holding in Roe v. Wade as federal law, creating a firewall against state barriers to access. And while that bill would certainly gird the quest to ensure reproductive rights, by itself the bill is not a panacea. The bill cannot encourage more young doctors to provide abortion care in the face of clinic harassment and financial barriers to providing reproductive services. Even if passed, it would not necessarily withstand scrutiny at the Supreme Court, where abortion opponents dominate. And it does not require private or public entities to provide financial assistance for poor women. The Freedom of Choice Act can be one piece of a rights-based strategy, but we must be realistic about its reach.

As a consequence, today we must openly and honestly consider what it means for many women who live in a world without Roe, for the reach of that ruling today does not touch all.

Somewhere in America today – pick a state – Pennsylvania, Missouri, Utah – a 16 year old young woman wonders whether her abusive parent will consent to her abortion. Somewhere in America today, a poor, rural woman begins a journey to reach the only abortion clinic in her state, having scraped together the money for a seedy hotel and bus money. Somewhere in America today, a mother sits at the kitchen table while her children do homework, reading her state's "informed consent" law, and shudders from the indignity of the medically inaccurate "counseling" and mandated ultrasound viewing she will endure in the morning. Many women will be demeaned and belittled when they walk past protesters screaming epithets to receive a safe, and legal, abortion today. Somewhere in America, a woman will consider the option of self-abortion, in 2008.

On this anniversary, we must remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King who said that "an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Our freedom, and that of our daughters, depends upon our continued fight for the freedom – for the moral authority – of all women who seek an end to their pregnancies. I believe we will succeed in our common goal to support all women, in all corners of this country, in their health care needs. Because as suffragist Susan B. Anthony once said, "failure is impossible."

We must take up the cause of women who need continued vigilance in protecting Roe's hope, and the cause of women across this nation for whom the promise of Roe is a privilege they cannot afford. In the words of my own Oregon heroine Abigail Scott Duniway, "The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future." We owe our grandmothers – as well as our daughters – to continue the fight for women's full humanity through reproductive rights.

So, on this anniversary, I find I celebrate an elusive ideal: that all women, regardless of birth or circumstance, will enjoy the freedoms extended to full citizens in a democratic society. To control our reproductive capacity is to control our finances, our health, our families, our very citizenship.

I cannot celebrate Roe itself, which for me is now a shadow of its earlier incarnation. To celebrate Roe feels unseemly in light of my many sisters, friends, and daughters who cannot celebrate with me. The dignity and moral authority of poor women or young women in Pennsylvania and Missouri and Mississippi is inextricably tied to mine, here in Oregon. Until all women can join me in celebrating a meaningful reproductive right not tied to status, I cannot rejoice in my own. A "right" based on status is simply no right at all.

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  • invalid-0

    Amen, sister. If many woman have virtually no access to a safe abortion, exactly what does it mean to them, that they have a legal right to one? It’s meaningless.

  • http://none.none invalid-0

    Homogeneity breeds in weakness. States should be able to allow or disallow abortions as they choose because they are neither right nor wrong. One standard throughout the country enforced on the federal level sounds doomed to fail like public education has been failing compared to private education.

  • harry834

    Americans' civil rights will be enforced on a state-by-state basis?

    I was under the impression that this country's robustness requires that civil rights are a NATIONAL mandate, to be protected and enforced, from sea to shining sea.


  • amanda-marcotte

    Is just a code for "overruling individual rights". It was invoked to justify slavery and denying black people the right to vote. Now it's about taking away the rights of women and gays. Oh yeah, and still of blacks and their right to vote.

  • http://babypop.blogspot.com invalid-0

    For misogynists who lack the backbone to out-and-out say “ban abortion.”

  • invalid-0

    I will state that we *must* find a simple, easy to obtain, impossible to regulate way of causing an abortion. If we do this, then all of this political and religious garbage of trying to remove this right would, for all intents and purposes go away. I hate to frame it that way, but that is the only way this issue is ever going to get to the point where we’re not dealing with this issue in the manner we are now.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you, Melody, for an eloquent and much-needed explanation of why the legal right to abortion is simply not enough to ensure that all women can truly access reproductive freedom. In Colorado, activists held a Reproductive Justice and Roe Reception this week to highlight the disconnect between the legal right to abortion and reality for young women, poor women, and others who want to access this procedure but cannot. The film “Legal But Out of Reach” by the National Network of Abortion Funds is a powerful reminder of this unfortunate truth. I encourage you and all the RH Reality Check readers to sign on to the Hyde – 30 Years is Enough! petition (http://www.hyde30years.nnaf.org/petition.html) to call on Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which restricts access to abortion services for poor women.