By Donna Lieberman and Rebekah Diller — Today marks the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s right to abortion. As we look back at this milestone for women’s equality, health, and privacy, we have much to celebrate. For three decades, women have been largely spared the danger and degradation of illegal abortion. And in New York, a whole generation of girls has come of age knowing that the government cannot interfere with their decisions about pregnancy and family planning.
But our celebration is tempered by an unprecedented attack on the whole range of reproductive rights that women and girls had thought we could take for granted. With foes of reproductive rights controlling the federal government, the chill wind that blows from Washington will reach even pro-choice bastions like New York. And this is not just about abortion. The Bush Administration has launched a full-scale campaign against condoms, birth control and STD prevention and government websites have been censored to stay on message, the facts be damned. The only federally funded sex education tells the millions of sexually active teens to “just say no” and bans any discussion of contraception or STD prevention.
And then there’s abortion. For decades, access has been declining, particularly for young and low-income women. In the last seven years, states have enacted a total of 335 measures restricting access to abortion and other reproductive health services. As if that weren’t enough, women must also try to find care amid a shortage of trained abortion providers, violence against physicians and patients, and economic and social barriers. As a result, for more and more women, legal abortions are increasingly out of reach, and the gap between who can exercise her right to choose and who cannot is widening.
Women in New York have been relatively fortunate. Though we too face a provider shortage—46 percent of New York counties have no abortion provider—the state has resisted waiting periods and compulsory anti-abortion “counseling” that lack medical justification and serve only as demeaning barriers to care. Teens are assured access to services without being forced by the state to involve their parents, though we know most teens do so voluntarily. Low-income women are assured coverage for abortion just like any other medically necessary procedure covered by the state’s Medicaid program.
But now both houses of Congress are anti-choice and federal legislation threatens to interfere with New York’s pro-choice policies.
With the Senate being led by Republican Bill Frist, who boasts of a 100 percent rating on major votes from the National Right to Life Committee, there is little doubt that Congress will enact the so-called “partial birth abortion” ban. Perhaps no anti-choice initiative is more misunderstood than this one. Notwithstanding its slick, Madison Avenue marketing as a ban on a single abortion method, this dangerous bill is really intended to outlaw as many abortions as possible. Its sweeping, unconstitutional language would outlaw safe abortion procedures used throughout the second trimester, without regard to woman’s health. This would mean a physician could be put in jail for doing his or her job—performing a procedure that is safe, common and medically appropriate to protect a woman’s health. Congress persists with this bill despite an unequivocal ruling by the Supreme Court several years ago that found so-called “partial birth abortion” bans are far-reaching and dangerous to women’s health. And the law applies everywhere; our state’s pro-choice policies will not matter to a New York physician facing federal prosecution.
That is just the first salvo we can expect from Washington. New York’s pro-choice policies will be further threatened if Washington passes the proposed “Abortion Non-Discrimination Act.” This dangerous bill would permit hospitals, insurance companies and HMOs to flout federal and state laws that protect abortion services and information, and further marginalize reproductive health care. A hospital, for example, might be able to turn away women who need emergency abortions because they are hemorrhaging, experiencing heart failure, or suffering from other grave conditions.
All these anti-woman initiatives take place against the backdrop of a one-vote majority on the Supreme Court protecting what has become a watered-down right to choose. Our President has told us that his model Supreme Court justices—those whom he would like to mirror in future appointments—are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Both have made it clear that they would overturn Roe.
The protection for women’s right to choose did not just fall from the sky, or from the Supreme Court bench, for that matter. In New York for example, the Legislature legalized abortion three years prior to Roe. This was the result of a mass movement to save women’s lives and preserve their health and dignity. The same energy and commitment will be needed now to preserve that right. That way we’ll have something to celebrate in 30 more years.
Lieberman is Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Diller is Director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project.