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On the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, A Nation Remains Divided

By January 22, 2013

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Anniversaries usually prompt reflection and celebration. But most anniversaries aren't as controversial as Roe v. Wade. A Supreme Court decision that was supposed to settle the issue of abortion once and for all continues to divide the country. Today as we observe the 40th anniversary of the legalization of abortion, the event is shadowed by widespread protests planned throughout the week.

Over the years on nearly every Roe v. Wade anniversary, I've reflected on certain aspects of the decision within a historical context.

In 2008 on the 35th anniversary, I observed that "Roe has never moved from the front burner of national political debate," and linked to the story of Gerri Santoro, whose grim story was often cited by pro-choice activists as an example of why safe and legal abortion needed to be protected. Santoro had separated from her abusive husband and was trying to build a new life with a new boyfriend, but when she found out she'd become pregnant she feared her ex would kill her if he found out. Her boyfriend attempted to perform abortion in a hotel room but after Santoro began hemorrhaging uncontrollably, he left her to die.

In 2009 on the 36th anniversary of Roe, I noted abortion was extremely rare on TV and in film, and that "entertainment media won't touch abortion with a ten-foot pole, even as other cultural taboos have fallen by the wayside." I followed this up with questions for newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama, wondering if he'd live to his campaign pledges as a pro-choice candidate.

In 2010 on the 37th anniversary I turned to other women for their thoughts, including Robin Marty who questioned the validity of the "fetal personhood amendment" because of her own personal story. When her baby died during the 8th week of pregnancy yet her body wouldn't miscarry, at 12 weeks she had a D & C, and at 24 weeks she was still "pregnant" based on her hormone levels. She wrote, "If the end of a pregnancy can be this fluid, how can 'this is the exact moment that a human begins and has rights?'  Pregnancy is far too complicated for that."

In 2011, on the 38th anniversary I focused on the generational divide between older women who grew up in a world in which their friends and acquaintances died from illegal abortions and younger women who take choice for granted and seem disinclined to fight for reproductive rights. I linked to an essay by Dorothy Powell, a senior at Ohio State University, who worried over the growing apathy of her college peers at the same time lack of access to abortion was on the rise.

On this 40th anniversary of Roe, it's important to remember the history that led to Roe and understand the circumstances that women lived under prior to the Supreme Court decision. As Linda K. Kerber, past president of the American Historical Association notes,  "Every state--and indeed every locality--has its own history of abortion: every state and every locality is less than a half-century removed from a time when abortion was illegal everywhere."

In her essay "The 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade: A Teachable Moment," Kerber encourages undergraduate and graduate students -- and those that educate them -- to continue to pursue lines of inquiry in order to "reconstruct a history that is in grave danger of being lost." She writes,  "Roe's 40th anniversary is both a warning of rapidly fading memories and an opportunity to capture a history that still shapes American lives and politics."

Forty years ago, the Supreme Court could not have known that their decision would continue to reverberate for decades and be debated every time supporters and opponents clashed in front of abortion clinics and inside statehouses across the nation. If there's one thing we can can agree on regarding abortion, it's that we disagree.


January 23, 2013 at 6:00 am
(1) GeorgiaC says:

Yesterday I heard an NPR story about AB in Mississippi. There is only one clinic left in the state! Anti abortion leaders say they were “last in civil righs but they want to be FIRST in human rights” by removing the chance to have the procedure by closing all the clinics. They have passed a law if the doctor does not have hospital admission privileges they cannot practice! The story lead-in detailed the poverty of the state. What’s the point if it’s legal but you can’t afford it or can’t get to a clinic? You’re still back to the days before Roe v Wade! Another equaling shocking story was the case of the Indian woman, visiting the US, who happened to miscarry in the wrong state. She died because the doctors wouldn’t do anything to help her. Women, especially poor women do not have a lot of “choice” in this country!

January 24, 2013 at 8:52 am
(2) Veronica says:

The people who are imposing these laws on us are people who, for the most part, love children and babies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the problem is that in imposing these laws, they’re imposing a lifestyle on women who don’t want it or can’t afford it (financially or physically). They naively believe that if they make abortion illegal, then women will change their minds and instantly love their babies when they arrive. Sure, they’ll have the babies like the anti-choicers want them to, but they’ll never love and parent the kids the way they need to be raised and loved. This naivete, if allowed to continue, will cost all of us.

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