Next week marks the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision. In the ongoing struggle to keep abortion safe and legal in the United States, there is no rest for the weary.
It was only a generation ago when as many as 10,000 women died each year from illegal abortions. Many thousands more suffered permanent injury, and countless others were forced to bear children against their will.
Not only did Roe affirm women’s constitutional right to control their bodies, but it underscored that women are entitled to freedom of conscience to act in accordance with their own religious and moral beliefs, rather than a state-imposed doctrine. Those 35 years have been marked by legal and legislative setbacks and open hostility from three presidents, but Roe has survived. Despite the ideological onslaught against it, a majority of Americans still favor the substance of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision.
Next week also marks the beginning of the new session of Congress, providing an appropriate moment to take stock and set new priorities that will build on this important constitutional milestone and reverse some of the setbacks Roe has suffered along the way.
First and foremost, the Senate must refrain from confirming any more judges hand-picked by the Bush administration for their anti-abortion views and far right-wing credentials. Far too many of these jurists are now sitting in lifetime seats on the federal bench, including the Supreme Court, confirmed by a Senate that gave the executive branch free sway to impose its ideology on the federal bench. Not only do these nominees pose a threat to a woman’s constitutional right to decide whether and when to have children, but the Supreme Court has already reversed earlier court decisions protecting a woman’s right to choose.
Second, we need safeguards when it comes to a woman’s ability to exercise her right to make decisions about her reproductive health. Young women and men deserve comprehensive, fact-based sexuality education free of ideological bias and pseudoscience. Women of childbearing age deserve access to safe, effective and affordable birth control. And these same women must have access to abortion services that respect their autonomy as moral decision-makers, regardless of income or place of residence.
There are several strong, proactive bills pending in Congress that would go a long way toward putting up those safeguards. They include the Prevention First Act, which would increase funding for Title X, the federal government’s leading program providing family planning to low-income and poor women; the Responsible Education About Life Act, which would create the first dedicated federal funding for medically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education; and the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify the 1973 Roe decision, barring states or the federal government from interfering with a woman’s right to choose to decide whether and when to have children.
We must make clear to our representatives in Washington that these bills are of the highest importance. But that is not all. We must also impress upon Congress the need to undo a number of egregious laws and policies.
Congress should repeal the Hyde amendment, which since 1976 has prevented federal funds from paying for abortions, as well as the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which outlaws particular abortion procedures without regard to the threat to a woman’s health. Congress should also restore the ability of drug companies to supply discounted birth control pills to colleges and some low-income community health centers, as they had been able to do for nearly 20 years until the practice was inadvertently banned in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. And Congress should do away with the “global gag rule” barring nongovernmental organizations abroad that receive federal funds from performing abortions or even talking about abortion as an option.
There is truly no rest for the weary when it comes to the right of women to determine their own destiny regarding reproductive rights. After 35 years, the rights protected by the Roe decision hang by a thread.
Today, a woman’s ability to exercise her rights under Roe depends on how much money she has and where she lives. Those who value this constitutional right must champion an agenda that works to achieve universal access to reproductive health and protects the basic right to reproductive choices.
Phyllis Snyder is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.