On January 22, 1973, 43 years ago today, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark Roe v. Wade case, making abortion a constitutionally-protected right.
Kelly Baden, Director of State Advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights told Elite Daily:
Roe v. Wade was a seminal moment in American history and in women’s equality -- in women’s ability to build and create the lives they want to lead.
Roe v. Wade means that if you're in an abusive relationship with someone who doesn't let you use birth control and you get pregnant, you don't have to have a child who will tie you for years to this man, who could also put your child in danger.
Instead, you can slip out to your local gynecologist to get the quick, safe abortion procedure that would allow you to leave the relationship in the past.
It means that if you're a mother trying to have another child and you learn that your baby will not live more than a couple of hours after birth, your doctor can end the pregnancy rather than make you go through weeks of pregnancy and hours of labor knowing your child will not survive.
Thanks to this decision, if you make a birth control mistake (which we all do at some point or another) and become pregnant before you're ready or willing to be a mother, you can just go to a nearby clinic and get an abortion.
In as short as a 20-minute appointment, you can go on living your life -- finishing school, growing your career, finding the right long-term partner -- and when you're ready to become a mother, if you'd like to become a mother at all, you can do that on your own terms.
Well, that's what Roe was supposed to do for women.
Instead, almost immediately, laws were passed that again restricted women's access to abortion. Many women in these situations can't easily get the medical procedure that would benefit their lives.
As Baden said:
It’s been 43 years of states in particular really chipping away at that right.
Although states may not be able to ban abortions because of Roe v. Wade, they can restrict access by passing laws saying women need to wait 48 hours after seeing a doctor to get the actual abortion, or minors need a parent's consent to get an abortion, or insurance and Medicaid can’t pay for an abortion, or you can only get an abortion up to a certain amount of time in the pregnancy, or women have to hear a state-written script before getting an abortion, or abortion clinics must have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles or abortion clinics must meet the heavy and unnecessary requirements of an ambulatory surgical center.
State legislators can get pretty creative when it comes to cutting off women’s access to a constitutionally-protected right.
Some of these restrictive laws are being argued in the Supreme Court this year in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole case, which will be another landmark case for abortion access. And there have been other legal protections to secure women’s access to abortion. In the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, the Supreme Court said women must not face an “undue burden” in accessing abortion.
Before Roe, many women sought illegal abortions or attempted to self-induce a termination.
As Jessica González-Rojas, Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, told Elite Daily about places where abortion is prohibited:
Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean women don’t have them.
In 1966, Leni Silverstein, an anthropologist, got an illegal abortion.
She was told she would have to meet an unidentified person in downtown Chicago. She had no idea where she would get the abortion, or who would perform it. She knew her safety and reproductive future were at risk. When she arrived at the appointed meeting place, she was blindfolded and driven to an undisclosed location. She believes it was an apartment somewhere in Chicago. Leni feels incredibly fortunate that she survived this ordeal. From that moment, she was certain that no other woman should be placed in a similar predicament.
After Roe, these secretive -- and often unsafe -- systems were technically no longer necessary.
But women are still finding themselves having to attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy outside of safe medical services due to the barriers states have put up. Between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women attempted to end a pregnancy by themselves, according to a study released last fall.
González-Rojas said she has heard of women who took medicine found on the black market and women who were punched in the stomach or thrown down stairs in desperate attempts to end a pregnancy when they could not access abortion services.
Even though abortion has been legal in America for 43 years, González-Rojas said that some immigrant women she works with from countries where abortion is illegal get confused:
Because the [abortion] debate in the US is so stigmatized, women don’t often know that abortion is legal.
In fact, many clinics around the country find it necessary to tell potential patients, yes, abortion is legal.
The legal barriers largely affect low-income women -- making it for them like Roe v. Wade never granted them the right to abortions. Non-English speakers may also not know the laws on abortion in the states they’re in and may have trouble in the office without a translator.
Just like before Roe was decided, women with more money can find solutions for themselves. They can travel to places where abortion is legal (or accessible), pay for child care (as most women seeking abortions are already mothers), afford to take days off from work and a hotel if they have to stay in a place far from home overnight.
High-income and financially independent women can also afford the actual procedure and may be on private insurance that will help cover it. The Hyde Amendment was passed three years after Roe v. Wade in 1976, and it says that the government cannot pay for abortions, through Medicaid or health funding, except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life, making abortion even less accessible to low-income women.
So every time Congress votes to defund Planned Parenthood, just remember, they’re voting to defund things like Pap smears, HIV testing and birth control -- not abortions.
Roe v. Wade kept states from being able to explicitly make abortion illegal. But for many women, legal restrictions have made it like Roe never happened.
With all these barriers, there are ways everyone can help save the rights given to all women in America 43 years ago.
The easiest way to help save abortion access? Vote.
If you’re not a citizen or 18 years old, you can help by raising awareness and helping others register to vote.
If you are a citizen older than 18, learn where candidates stand on abortion access, and then vote.
This would be much easier if women’s health care were actually discussed in Democratic debates, but Hillary Clinton says she would repeal the Hyde Amendment as president.
Meanwhile, the Republican candidates have largely come out swinging against abortion.
Educate yourself beyond the presidential level. Learn who your local, state and federal representatives are and what they support. If there’s something you think they’re not addressing, reach out to them.
But step one is the most important -- and the easiest. Abortion has been legal in this country for 43 years now.
You have a role to make sure it stays that way, with more protected access. Get out there and vote.