Nearly Four Decades After Roe, Women Are Losing Independence


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

Yesterday was Roe v. Wade’s 39th anniversary, and what should have been just a joyous date for feminists has instead become a time to reflect how well we’re doing against the backlash to women’s rights. Roe was about abortion, sure, but it was so much more. It was the culmination of years of feminist activism, legislation, and court decisions regarding contraception and abortion that sent a clear signal to the women of America that they were the rightful owners of their bodies. Not their fathers, not their husbands, not their ministers, not the clucking prudes down the street, and not even their doctors.

The results were dramatic. The vile practice of the “maternity home”—a place where pregnant teenagers and single young women were sent to give birth and be subject to immense pressure to give up their babies—disappeared, signaling a new era where women who decided to keep their pregnancies are exponentially more likely to keep their babies rather than give them up for adoption. There was a fairly successful movement of women demanding more knowledge about their bodies, represented by the book Our Bodies, Ourselves. Gynecologists responded by becoming more patient-friendly. (Even douches have finally lost so many sales that douche companies are beginning to explore other options.) The new women-own-themselves frame became a launching pad for anti-rape and anti-domestic violence activism. In previous eras, society mostly looked away from these crimes, because dealing with them meant pushing back against the notion that women are the property of other people. Now that we believe (formally, though much work has to be done) that women own themselves, these transgressions are harder to ignore.

The problem is that 40 years of the anti-choice movement fighting back against this notion that women own themselves is starting to damage women’s confidence that they have and deserve their full human rights.

A recent episode of the Savage Love podcast really drove this home for me. A woman called in, concerned about a young woman of her acquaintance who was dealing with an unintended pregnancy. She peppered Dan Savage with questions about parental consent laws, how to make the decision, whether or not the man who got the young woman pregnant could be in legal trouble for being so much older, etc. But one question jumped out at me: She asked Dan if it was legal for the young woman of 17 to have an abortion without getting her boyfriend’s permission first.

Dan swiftly assured the woman that in California, you not only have a right to get an abortion without a parent’s permission, but certainly you don’t need the impregnator’s permission. He also added that it’s a shame that parental notification is in place in any state, I’ll add that one area where anti-choicers have no shot without a major Supreme Court intervention is in their desire to take away a woman’s right to choose and give it to her husband or her boyfriend. In the 1992 decision Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Court specifically singled out spousal notification and permission laws as an “undue burden.” Even if that wasn’t true, I think anti-choicers have gotten savvy enough to avoid directly stating that their wish is to return women to a position of being property owned by a man because he happens to be having sex with her. Their aims now tend to be more geared towards portraying women as simply too dumb to have rights (such as claiming that mandatory ultrasounds are necessary so women know that they’re, um, terminating a pregnancy) rather than an overt claim that women should be under male control their entire lives.

Not that they quit believing that women should be subject to male control from the cradle to the grave, mind you. The recent Anderson Cooper show on the continuing phenomenon of “purity balls” makes that quite clear. The inventor of purity balls repeatedly claims that it’s not just about virginity but vaguely talks about “fathers”. While he’s not very articulate, it’s clear what his point is: that our culture’s emphasis on female independence has usurped a man’s right to claim ownership over his daughters, and purity balls are about men asserting those ownership claims, with virginity symbolizing the level of control they exert over their daughters. When their daughters marry, that control transfers seamlessly to their  husband, which is when the purity ring is handed over in exchange for a wedding ring. The point is making sure that there’s not a minute where a man doesn’t lay claim to the woman, preventing her from getting ideas in her head like, “I seem to do just fine when not being directly controlled by a man, so why can’t I be free?”

Again, antis aren’t big fans of being so blunt about it, so they have some token men wearing purity rings (such as Tim Tebow) to deflect claims that this is about patriarchy and not vague notions of “purity” (which is simply such a gross term for sexual inexperience, as it would have you believe that sexually active people are unclean). This isn’t really fooling anyone; the amount of pomp around male virginity pledgers has nothing on the amount of pomp around female virginity pledgers, and only the girls actually pledge their virginities to their fathers. Boys who do it are assumed to have an agency that girls don’t.

In a world where abortion restrictions are getting more serious all the time, and the vocal minority pushing these restrictions is so blatantly in love with returning women to a time where they were legally considered appendages of fathers or husbands, is it any wonder that an ordinary woman might actually worry that she’s legally required to get her boyfriend’s permission to have an abortion? Yes,  men forcibly making women carry children from them would be a horrible violation of human rights, but a bunch of prudes using the law to force women to bear children as punishment for being “impure” is also a horrible human rights violation, and that’s one that’s occurring more and more with every restriction the anti-choicers manage to pass.  

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

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte