Tues., Jan. 22 marked the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which—in a nutshell—legalized abortion in the United States. Our generation has never known an America where abortion wasn’t on-the-books legal. Almost all women of reproductive age—defined as ages 15-44—have lived their entire lives in a post-Roe world. However, inasmuch as Roe was a legal milestone and remains a rallying point for the pro-choice movement, it is dangerous to conclude that reproductive justice has been won. Too many members of our generation take abortion’s legality for granted and assume that legality ensures access.
In Connecticut, as in many other Northeastern states, getting an abortion is relatively simple: there are enough clinics so that it’s relatively simple to travel to one, and there are no state-level restrictions surrounding abortion. But in other states, things are more difficult. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, only 13 percent of counties nationwide have an abortion provider.
In many states, people seeking abortions confront a web of laws devised to prevent them from getting the procedure. Since an outright repeal of Roe seems unlikely, legislators have turned to restrictions designed to make it difficult or impossible for someone to receive an abortion. These can include an invasive, mandatory ultrasound, parental notification for minors, or a waiting period between a consultation and the procedure, all of which increase expense and inconvenience. Some states may also mandate that patients be presented with information that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer (it doesn’t), causes the fetus pain (it doesn’t), or leads to mental-health problems (it doesn’t). A patient on Medicaid, a government health program for low-income residents, may or may not be able to get funding for the procedure — under the Hyde Amendment, no federal funding may be used for abortions, and states vary on providing funding themselves. Even if money is available—and it may not be, particularly for the uninsured—the logistics of traveling to a clinic, finding childcare, and taking time off from work present additional challenges.
Then, too, there is the huge amount of social stigma that still surrounds abortion. Even in more liberal states, someone seeking to get an abortion may be faced with protesters at the door. These protesters are not simply exercising their freedom of speech; they become a palpable threat to the patient, who is forced to face undue judgment and shame for their choice.
So, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it cannot be stressed enough that abortion is not easily accessible for every person who may want one. Roe might have been the fight of our parents’ generation, but it’s not over. Sure, it’s frustrating—in the wise words of a sign I saw once at a march, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” But in the face of growing conservative opposition, it’s dangerous to remain neutral.
There’s an iconic image, published in Ms. Magazine in 1973, of a woman crouched on a motel-room floor, a bloody towel underneath her hips, dead from an attempted self-induced abortion. We know that her name is Gerri Santoro, and that she died on May 8, 1964. But there are many more people whose names we do not, cannot, and will not know—those who are, under the law, guaranteed an abortion but will not be able to get one because of where they live, who they are, or what they earn. Many more will be forced to carry and bear children against their wishes. Even after Roe, their fates are still being decided by legislators who see them as abstractions, caricaturing them as irresponsible, promiscuous, or thoughtless: at best, careless, and at worst, murderers.
But we know that’s inaccurate. We know they are our friends, classmates, siblings, and family members; they could even be us. But we shouldn’t have to name them or know them to support them; they are simply people seeking a medically necessary procedure, making the best decision they can at a particular time. Many of them face abusive relationships, poverty, racial discrimination, or responsibility for children.
We can support them, most obviously, by voting for pro-choice politicians and then holding them to their promises. Volunteering with pro-choice groups or donating to abortion access funds are also helpful. Most importantly, the movement needs our voices, insisting that Roe must be more than just a law on the books.