Roe at 39: Sometimes the Sky Does Fall


For all our coverage of the 29th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, click here.

Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist David Milbank leveled criticism at both sides of the debate over reproductive rights, claiming that all of the sound and fury leading up to the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision on Sunday is more about raising money for advocacy groups than dealing with the issue of abortion.

“If these groups cared as much about the issue as they claim, and didn’t have such strong financial incentives to avoid consensus and compromise, they’d cancel the carnivals and get to work on the one thing everybody agrees would be worthwhile – reducing unwanted pregnancies.”

He goes on to say that while abortion opponents should be criticized for “resisting easy birth control,” the pro-choice crowd should “drop the sky-is-falling warnings about Roe and acknowledge that…not every compromise means a slippery slope to the back alley.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of real-world evidence piling up to the conclusion that Milbank is being more than a little naïve, and there are probably a lot of so-called “centrists” in the same boat. So let’s set a few things straight.

First, the idea that the pro-choice community – whose most visible proponent is Planned Parenthood – has not “[gotten] to work” on reducing unwanted pregnancies is obviously absurd. Nationwide, Planned Parenthood affiliates provide affordable birth control to more than 2.5 million women each year, and sex education programming to over a million people each year – 24 million if you include traffic to online and mobile education resources. At the Planned Parenthood affiliate where I work, we see nearly as many people in the community through our education programs as we see in our health centers. And when we talk to elected officials, comprehensive sex education is always a top priority. Nobody is doing more than Planned Parenthood to reduce unintended pregnancy.

Second, I’m sorry to say that the sky is falling on Roe v Wade. It’s been falling incrementally for the past four decades, and it fell further, faster, in 2011 than in any year before. According to the Guttmacher Institute, state legislatures passed 94 new laws restricting abortion in 2012. Not only is that a new record, but it shatters the previous record of 34 new laws passed in 2005 by a lot.

Furthermore some of the restrictions that have been passed in recent years are actually in violation of the protections afforded by Roe v Wade, designed that way intentionally to seed a Supreme Court challenge to the 1973 decision. For example, Nebraska, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Kansas have all passed laws banning abortion after 20 weeks. Many more have tried. And if you look at who is sitting on the bench of our current Supreme Court, there are only three solidly pro-choice votes – the National Abortion Federation rates Justice Kennedy as “mixed” and Justice Sotomayor as “unknown.” The idea that Roe v Wade could be overturned is not Chicken Little.

As most who follow this issue know, the fall of Roe would leave regulation of abortion to the states, and we can see pretty clearly how that is shaping up. Even in my home state of New York, the law on the books guarantees the right to an abortion only if a woman’s life is at risk. If just her health were at risk, it would be her tough luck, and believe me, the distinction matters. As Amanda Marcotte wrote recently in Slate:

“If one doctor thinks that a condition has a 40 percent chance of killing a woman and another thinks it has a 60 percent chance of killing her, what then? I fail to see how the lawyers can’t get involved, unless the government is willing to let it basically go as long as the proper paperwork is filed. But since these laws are being passed by rabid anti-choicers who claim that the threat of being crippled is not enough to let you have an abortion, the chance of that happening is pretty low.”

Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers support a bill to create an exception for health, the state legislature has failed to get it done for several years in a row despite considerable grass-roots pressure from pro-choice advocates.

Mere “restrictions” on abortion are not the worst that could happen in states either. Efforts are underway in six states to ban abortion completely with laws that declare “personhood” to begin at the moment of conception – even before the medically defined beginning of pregnancy. Since these radical measures would also effectively ban hormonal birth control and various fertility treatments, it’s no surprise they have been roundly rejected by voters in ballot initiatives so far. But that has not stopped the extremists in Mississippi. Activists there are now pushing a law that would accomplish what they failed to do with their ballot initiative last November. Could state legislators vote for anti-choice restrictions that most of their constituents would vote against? Again, I refer you to their record-breaking race to do so last year.

So the alarm that defenders of reproductive rights have been sounding at a higher and higher volume is serious business. As we approach the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we have an opportune moment to bring these concerns into focus against the never-ending blur of our modern news cycle. Anti-choice extremists – a fair word for people who equate not just abortion but birth control pills with murder – are gearing up to make their own hay on this issue, and after 38 years of losing ground, pro-choice advocates need maximum effort to turn things around.

And yes, Mr. Milbank, that maximum effort will take some money. Not nearly as much money as Planned Parenthoods across the country spend every year on essential, preventive health care for millions, but a fair amount nevertheless.

But it is people power that can make the biggest difference. We need people to start going beyond signing one petition a year, or sending a few emails. We need phone calls, and letters, and visits to our legislators and marching in the streets. The anniversary of Roe will come and go, but there is only one time to take action, and that time is right now.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.