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A Tough 'Roe' to Hoe: Roe v. Wade & 35 Years of Legal Abortion

By January 21, 2008

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The 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade - the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in the United States -will be observed tomorrow with celebrations, protests, marches, and vigils. Throughout its 35-year history, Roe has never moved from the front burner of national political debate.

Passionate, powerful, and influential pro-life and pro-choice movements nationwide continue to wage war in public and strategize in private.

Presidential candidates split along party lines with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing abortion - with the exception of Rudy Giuliani. To satisfy would-be voters, they explain how they would uphold Roe or select Supreme Court justices supportive of overturning it.

A woman's reproductive and contraceptive options have expanded with two relatively recent developments. Women can now choose a non-surgical method of abortion, RU-486 (mifepristone); or prevent an unintended pregnancy by using Plan B (the Morning After Pill), a form of emergency contraception available over-the-counter to those 18 and older.

And just last week, the Guttmacher Institute announced on January 18, 2008 that abortion rates are on the decline.

This is the state of the union in the post-Roe era - a snapshot of where we are as we mark the 35th anniversary of this landmark decision on January 22, 2008. It's a point at which we straddle many possibilities depending on the outcome of the upcoming 2008 presidential election.

Roe as a Legal Decision

The Supreme Court has passed down a number of rulings that have irrevocably altered our society. But none continue to be debated decades later with such fervor as Roe v. Wade. The legal ramifications of the ruling are examined in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
"Roe is different from all other cases because it's never been accepted by a large segment of the people," said Dr. Arthur Hellman, a professor and constitutional law expert at the University of Pittsburgh Law School. "Almost since the beginning, it's been a political issue...."

Hellman doubts that efforts to overturn the Roe decision will find any measure of success...."This is such a settled precedent, it would take a huge change in opinion," Hellman said....Although controversial, the ruling is a critical part of the American fabric that helped to shape the nation's social, political and legal landscape for 35 years, he said.

Roe and the Advancement of Women

ACLU of Ohio Executive Director Christine Link sees Roe v. Wade as the catalyst for subsequent positive changes in women's lives:

Thirty-five years ago, there were 15 women in Congress; only three had ever held the office of governor of a state. Today, 92 women sit in Congress, including the first Madame Speaker of the House and 26 women who have served as governors....Women currently make up 57 percent of college students (up from 42 percent in 1970) and are obtaining advanced degrees in record numbers. In the mid-1970s, women made up only 16 percent of medical school graduates; today, they constitute nearly 50 percent.

Likewise, women holding science and engineering doctoral degrees have more than quadrupled since the late 1960s. And the ranks of female Fortune 500 CEOs have grown from one in 1973 to 10 in 2006.

The timing of these advances is not serendipitous. At the core of women’s equality is the ability to control whether and when we have children....

This fact is not lost on the only two women to date ever to serve on the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor co-authored an opinion preserving Roe in 1992 that acknowledged, ”The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

And just last year...Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passionately argued that the core of the right to abortion ”center(s) on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”

Before Roe - Dangerous & Illegal Abortion

And finally, Marian Gail Brown, writing in the Connecticut Post, reminds us what Roe brought an end to - desperate attempts by women (and men) to end unplanned pregnancies, and the loss of mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives who died from illegal abortions, terrified and - in many cases - abandoned and alone.

Brown recounts the story of Gerri Santoro, a mother of two who had separated from her abusive husband. Santoro was building a new life for herself with a new boyfriend when she found out she was pregnant. Fearing her soon-to-be-divorced husband would kill her, Santoro rented a motel room and tried to end the pregnancy herself:

Santoro's boyfriend, a World War II fighter pilot, showed up. He came with some baggage: a speculum, forceps and a medical textbook (borrowed from a co-worker whose wife was a doctor) that outlined how to perform an abortion.

He wasn't a doctor. He had no medical training. Santoro bled all over the bed and the floor of the sparse motel room. Then she began to hemorrhage. The boyfriend panicked and abandoned her without summoning for help. Santoro bunched up a towel and knelt on the carpet, placing the towel beneath her in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding.

When the cleaning crew arrived the next morning to make the bed, that's how they found Santoro, keeled over nude and dead.

For many years, abortion rights activists carried the police photo of Santoro's death as a reminder of what life was like before Roe. Similarly, anti-abortion protesters carried photos of aborted fetuses showing what Roe has made legal.

Although both sides continue to be separated by a wide gulf of opinion and intent, the fact that the United States' rate of abortion is declining is good news - the one bit of common ground between two otherwise opposing views on the pivotal ruling of Roe v. Wade.

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January 21, 2008 at 4:17 pm
(1) SwingCorey says:

There should be a section called, “After Roe – Abortion is still dangerous, especially to the child”. Another way of looking at it is that the number of abortions is 3 million more than the people who voted in 37 states & D.C. COMBINED in 2004.

One of the only positives to come out of the Roe v. Wade decision is the growth of crisis pregnancy centers, which now outnumber Planned Parenthood abortion factories 3-to-1.

As for the stances of presidential candidates, none of them have yet made a speech like this (although that would be refreshing).

May 16, 2010 at 1:44 pm
(2) ana says:

So what the hell are you saying? That women gained more influential positions of power because they were allowed to have abortions???

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