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Roe: 47 Years and Counting

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On January 20, 1973, Richard Nixon was inaugurated to his second term as president.  His landslide victory over Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) — who had been labeled the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” — was driven by a “Southern strategy” that reconfigured national politics.

Two days after Nixon’s inauguration, on the January 22nd, the then all-male Supreme Court voted 7-2, in Roe v Wade, to overturn a Texas law making it a crime to assist a woman to terminate her pregnancy. The Count found the law violated a woman’s due process rights.

Often forgotten, Justice Harry Blackmun noted, “… throughout the 19th Century prevailing legal abortion practices were far freer than they are today, persuades us that the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn ….” The Roe decision forced 46 states to liberalize their abortion laws and became the defining issue of the culture wars.

Personal privacy is at the heart of the debate over Roe as well as many of the other sex-related Court decisions over the last half-century. Before Roe, each state had the authority to determine the limits of a woman’s privacy, especially in terms of determining her pregnancy … and, possibly, an abortion.

Do Americans have a right to privacy?  This “right” is not enumerated in the Constitution but the Ninth Amendment states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  The battle over the right to privacy, especially a woman’s right to an abortion, defines the culture wars.

With Roe, the Court shifted the right of privacy from the individual state to the individual pregnant woman and extended the woman’s rights to the nation as a whole. It dramatically revealed how, up to then, American women — as “citizens” — had no personal right to sexual privacy. Roe grants each woman that right, the power to decide the outcome of her pregnancy.

Now, 47 years after the Court legalized a woman’s right to the privacy of an abortion, Roe v. Wade faces its gravest threat.  Donald Trump’s election enabled the Christian right to seize state power, including (until recently) control over both Houses of Congress. Compounding this situation, Trump nominated – and the Senate confirmed – two archconservatives, Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court. In addition, conservative legislators in states throughout the country have adopted or proposed legislation intended to finally end – or severely restrict – the Roe decision and a woman’s right to an abortion as well as teen sex-ed and access to contraceptives.

Faced with likely challenges to Roe, Robin Marty has just published Handbook for a Post-Roe America that is, in her words, an “action plan.” It is “a step-by-step guide explaining what any person can do once abortion becomes illegal or inaccessible in the U.S.” It is written, she says, “primarily for those who are looking for ways to prepare for the worst-case scenarios in a post-Roe America …”

Marty is a writer and abortion-rights activist whose works have appeared in the HuffPost, CosmopolitanRolling StonePolitico and other publications. She is coauthor, with Jessica Mason Pieklo, of The End of Roe v. Wade: Inside the Right’s Plan to Destroy Legal Abortion.

The Handbook is divided into two easily readable and informative sections.The first part is a 10-chapter assessment of, as Chapter 2 is titled, “Roe Is Over – What Does That Look Like?” The individual chapters provided invaluable information useful both for an individual woman seeking an abortion and for those seeking to politically organize and fight the injustices of the anti-abortionists.

Marty provides information ranging from the current legal situation women face in each state as well as about how to secure a medical abortion and commercially-available abortion-inducing pills and herbs, if needed. She even includes a working budget of the costs associated with an out-of-state medical procedure so a woman can financially plan for it.  (It can cost between $550 to $1,700 “depending on your location and personal situation.)

As she notes, the information is provided for“pregnant people [who] may need to travel across state lines, obtain illegal abortion-inducing medications, or keep their abortions secret from partners, family and the authorities.” She warns that current legal options could be criminalized, depending on which state one lives in and/or if the Supreme Court shifts even further to the right.

Her concluding chapter, “Avoiding Surveillance in a Post-Roe America,” includes a warning. “The internet will be a great way to find information, but it’s a double-edged sword because it leaves a trail,” Marty writes.  And asks, “How do you access these things online without being able to be tracked?”

The handbook’s second part is a comprehensively researched “resource guide” of state-by-state organizations and agencies that assist women seeking an abortion as well as national organizations committed to preserving a woman’s right to choose. The information includes contact information – i.e., organization names, addresses, phone numbers and website addresses – for clinics and support groups throughout the country. It concludes with examples of model bills that should be implemented on the state level if Roe is overturned.

The author acknowledges that some of the tactics she identifies “aren’t meant for everyone.” She adds, these tactics “are meant for those who have the privilege to be able to put their time, skills, money, and even personal freedom into making abortion accessible for everyone.”

One small but important oversight in Marty’s otherwise essential work is an acknowledgement that, over the last quarter-century, abortion has radically declined in the U.S.  On November 23, 2018, the CDC issued a report, “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2015,” that found that in the decade between 2006 and 2015, the number of reported abortions declined by nearly one-quarter (24%) to 638,169 from 842,855 – and nearly one-third (32%) from the 1996 total of 934,549 reported abortions.

The study notes that the rate of abortions per 1,000 for women ages 15 to 44 fell to 11.8 from 15.9 percent during the 2006-2015 decade and that decreases in abortion rates occurred across all age groups.  It reports that in 2015 abortion rates declined across all age groups. The greatest decline was seen among adolescents; the rate of abortions of girls aged 15-19 fell by more than one-half (54%). However, the majority of women who had abortions were in their 20s; nearly one-third (31.1%) were aged 20-24 and over one-quarter (27.6%) were aged 25-29.

Rachel Jones, principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, attributed the sizable and sustained decline in abortions to proactive birth-planning practices.  “Affordable access to the full range of contraception and family planning options is critical for people deciding if and when they’d like to become parents, develop their careers, plan for their futures, and manage their health,” she said.

These developments make the need for accurate information and comprehensive sex education as well as sexual health services (including birth-control for teens) all the more essential. Equally critical, by taking the shame and illegality out of abortion, those women who needing it declined.  This simple lesson is something the anti-abortionists refuse to acknowledge and why, unfortunately, Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America is all-the-more important as Roe faces its gravest challenge after 47 years.
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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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