Roe at 40 — Happy Anniversary, Losers


Earlier this month, Time magazine made the plight of Roe its cover story, boldly proclaiming that abortion rights activists have been losing ever since the Supreme Court upheld the right to privacy. An almost identical story soon followed in the Washington Post. Planned Parenthood’s decision to let go of the “pro-choice” label similarly generated buzz on the declining number of those who identify as pro-choice as well as on the failure of the movement to take a strong stance for abortion. Struggling clinics. Generational divides within the movement. Fluctuating poll numbers. Controversy over the pro-choice label. As a recent post by Tracy Weitz reminds us on the latter count, these are not new stories. Rather they are old stories getting hauled out for Roe. And they are woefully skewed and incomplete.

Let me challenge the idea that we are losing. For example, in South Dakota or any of the many other states that rely on a single remaining abortion clinic,  these clinics are open and providing care for women despite all the intimidation, over-regulation, and harassment thrown these clinics’ way. That is not what I call losing. Nor can I see a rising generation of leaders and activists and an evolving movement vision and strategy as a liability when I consider the alternative: no new ideas, no new leadership, none of the tension that sparks creativity. Perhaps most frustrating of all is the insistence on maintaining a battle narrative, in which two clear sides war against each other, pro-choice and pro-life.

At Provide, we work with primary health care and social service providers whose patients and clients, like all women of reproductive age, face the prospect of an unwanted, mistimed, or non-viable pregnancy. We train and support these providers to counsel, inform, refer, and, where possible, provide abortion care as one of the many services they offer to women. We do this in places where political opposition to abortion is highest and many of the professionals we work with vote Republican, attend conservative churches, and call themselves pro-life. They are also professional, compassionate people who see that they have a role in offering the best possible care for the women they serve, and that sometimes this includes abortion, even when they themselves are opposed. Says one recent attendee at a Provide training, “I learned that my personal opinions should not be introduced to my future clients. I should focus on their needs.” It’s on the basis of these experiences that the news article that made the most sense to me this month was the one that was supposed to be most surprising, MSNBC’s January 9 story “More and more ‘pro-life’ Americans support abortion rights.” Circumstances and respect for the predicaments of others can outweigh issue-labels, the article suggests.

Yes, exactly.

I am not arguing that the challenges the articles of the past month describe are not real. It takes work to make generational tensions within a movement creative and productive vs. destructive. It’s irrefutable that record numbers of state restrictions on abortion have passed and that clinics are closing. This is not just about abortion restrictions. Health care reform too, with its emphasis on primary care, will challenge the current system of abortion care delivery as it will all specialized care providers. And I understand that people need to vote in politicians who are committed to abortion if rights and access are to be fully realized and maintained. Other challenges also loom, as the most proactive in our movement push us to consider not only individual rights but a more just world that ensures sexual and reproductive freedom and health for everybody. Restoration of public abortion coverage, how to reduce the stigma of abortion without oversimplifying its complexities, no one would claim these are easy issues to resolve.

But we do a disservice when we allow the story of our work to be told in an overly binary, win/lose, pro-choice/pro-life, young/old, way – we neglect our own victories and we overlook unexpected partners and allies with whom, despite political differences, we can find commonality in our care and compassion for the people in our lives. Yes, there is urgent need for all of us to do better on the issue of abortion. But for all the work ahead, a narrative that is built instead around our alliances and strengths seems to me the better starting place, and is a narrative that I, for one, will claim.

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