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Defend the right to abortion!

40 years after Roe v Wade, women's rights are still under attack

January 22, 2013
August 26, 2012 March to Defend Women's Rights

The Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Roe v Wade on January 22, 1973. Forty years later, as women continue to face constant assaults on our legal right to reproductive healthcare, we recognize the importance of defending our previous gains.

The landmark Roe v Wade decision overturned state legislation and made abortion legal throughout the United States for the first trimester of the pregnancy. For the first time, women in the United States had the legal right to make decisions about their reproductive health. In later rulings, the Supreme Court interpreted the ruling as protecting a woman’s right to become pregnant or carry her pregnancy to term, in addition to the right to terminate her pregnancy.

Prior to Roe v Wade, abortion providers were frequently arrested and imprisoned and women seeking or having abortions performed were subject to police brutality, arrest and imprisonment. In 1971, Shirley Wheeler was arrested, prosecuted and convicted of manslaughter after hospital staff reported her illegal abortion to the police. Although the state Supreme Court eventually overturned her conviction, the trial court sentenced Wheeler to two years probation, requiring her to marry her boyfriend or return to her parents' home.

In the 1960s, due to pressure from the growing women's movement and the work of women's rights advocates, legal access to abortion began to spread.  New York, Hawaii, Alaska and Washington legalized abortion, and fourteen other states reformed their statues to allow abortion under certain circumstances.

Legalized abortions in a few states did not mean equal access. States with reformed anti-abortion laws still required women to navigate a legal process that was difficult and costly. Poor women, especially women of color, were unable to travel to those few states or to engage in that process. In desperate circumstances, millions of women tried to self-induce abortions or sought illegal abortions.

In the year prior to Roe v Wade, 100,000 women travelled to New York City to obtain an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an estimated 50,000 women traveled more than 500 miles; nearly 7,000 women traveled more than 1,000 miles; and 250 traveled more than 2,000 miles, from as far away as Arizona, Idaho and Nevada.

In 1965, nearly 200 women died due to illegal abortions, accounting for 17 percent of all deaths related to childbirth and pregnancy that year. The true number of deaths and injuries may be higher. One study of low-income women in New York City in the 1960s found that the vast majority were forced to self-induce abortions. In that study, 77 percent of women had done so. Women of color, facing institutionalized racism, were disproportionately affected by illegal and unsafe abortions. The mortality rate due to illegal abortion for women of color was 12 times higher than for white women in the early 1970s.

In June of 1969, Norma McCorvey discovered she was pregnant with her 3rd child and unsuccessfully attempted to obtain an abortion. After seeking help from a local attorney, she was referred to Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. Weddington and Coffee were part of the mass women’s movement and sought to challenge anti-abortion statutes. McCorvey’s attorneys filed suit in U.S. District court in Texas against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County responsible for enforcing the anti-abortion law. McCorvey was referred to as “Jane Roe” in the court filings to protect her identity.

Roe v Wade reached the Supreme Court in 1970 and the historic decision was issued in January of 1973. Since Roe v Wade, deaths related to abortion have plummeted and the percentage of abortions obtained at or before 8 weeks has skyrocketed—from 18 to 56 percent.

Roe v Wade was not decided in favor of a women's right to choose because of benevolent Supreme Court judges; it was a direct result of a mass movement demanding change. Inspired and influenced by the civil rights movement, women in the 1960s organized themselves to fight back.

In February of 1969, the Redstockings, a radical feminist organization, and hundreds of women disrupted a New York legislature hearing on abortion to demand that women have a hearing on reproductive rights.  On March 21, 1969, women organized a speak-out in the West Village of New York City to talk about abortion and demand reproductive rights. The demonstration, considered taboo at the time, inspired a number of speak-outs all over the nation.

Women and men also organized underground referral programs to connect women with medical providers that performed safe abortions. Underground newspapers informed women about safe methods of abortion and contraception, and listed unlicensed doctors and police informants. All of these activities were constantly at risk of police harassment and shutdown, but the organizations persisted.

The emerging militant women's movement gained support from a variety of sectors of society and built upon the struggle of their mothers and grandmothers in gaining rights and access previously denied them. Roe v Wade was among the victories of this movement challenging sexism, violence and anti-women laws and propaganda.

But ever since the decision, the right to safe, legal abortion has been under attack. In 1977, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, banning federal Medicaid funding for abortions. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on partial-birth abortions. And a coordinated right-wing assault on reproductive rights focused on state legislatures as a tool for restricting women's right to reproductive healthcare—attacking not only abortion, but also contraception—resulted in greater numbers of anti-woman statutes than ever before. Today, 87 percent of all counties in the United States have no abortion provider.

We celebrate Roe v Wade in recognition of the many women who suffered and died to win rights we take for granted today. We must continue to struggle so we may never go back to the time of back-alley abortions and unnecessary deaths from unsafe procedures. We celebrate our capacity to push back the right-wing assaults on our hard-won rights, and our capacity to open new avenues of struggle to win full equality: in healthcare, in the workplace, on the streets, in our homes and in our schools.

Join WORD in the struggle for women's rights and help build the new women's movement to defend our gains. Full equality for all people!