Roe v. Wade 40 Years Later: How Far Have We Come?*

By Kate Michelman and Carol Tracy

January 22nd marks the fortieth anniversary of landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.

Roe v. Wade was a historic milestone for women in America, because this right to control our capacity to reproduce – including our right to use contraception – significantly enhances our ability to participate fully in society. It helps ensure our personal privacy, our dignity, and our health.

Roe v. Wade promised to protect our ability to make decisions about our bodies without unwarranted interference, and recognized the essential importance of equality and freedom for women in our society.

On this fortieth anniversary, it is appropriate to ask if the promise of Roe v. Wade has been fulfilled.  Has women’s liberty and equality progressed as far as we hoped it would since January 22, 1973?

Clearly there have been some great strides forward. During the 2012 elections, women turned out in droves to make their voices heard. In almost every instance where women’s reproductive rights were challenged, freedom of choice prevailed. Earlier this month, a record number of women were sworn into the 113th Congress. Indeed, some may view the successes of 2012 as a sign of continually emerging equality and solid and lasting protection against discrimination and political harassment. Sadly, they would be wrong.

In 2012, forty-two states and the District of Columbia enacted 122 reproductive health-related measures. The primary purpose of at least 43 of those was to limit access to abortion.  This was in addition to the 92 abortion restrictions enacted in 2011. Twenty states restricted abortion coverage through the state health insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Health Care Act. Crucial family planning funds were slashed from many state budgets.  Funding for reproductive health services in non-state operated clinics such as Planned Parenthood came under attack at both the state and federal levels. Currently, contraception can be barred from employer-based insurance coverage in eight states, and abstinence-only education remains the norm in the majority of our country.

This fight against contraception reveals the true hypocrisy of the anti-abortion groups: their concern isn’t protecting the unborn fetus; it’s about controlling which choices women are, and are not, allowed to make.

Forty years later, women still do not have equal pay in the workplace and are discriminated against due to pregnancy and familial responsibilities.

And despite the record-breaking number of women in Congress this year, and despite women voting at higher rates than men, women remain vastly underrepresented in the political landscape, let alone the corporate world. Those who do beat the tremendous odds are subjected to double standards of behavior, gender-based rhetoric, and vicious vitriol directed at times towards their femininity rather than their capability.

Negative attitudes towards women do not end there. The continued occurrences and reactions to instances of rape and sexual assault are indicative of the negative attitudes towards women that permeate society today. The gang rape on a bus in India sparked a global furor. The rape in Steubenville, Ohio, our own backyard, sparked a similar wave of repudiation. However, the blaming, shaming, and judgment directed toward the victims of these horrific crimes remains a key component of the dialogue surrounding even these high-profile instances of sexual assault. While the sheer volume of sexual assault and rape speaks to the prevalence of violent and negative attitudes towards women, the victim-blaming and judgment that occurs paints an even more disturbing picture revealing how subversive and long-lasting these negative perspectives of women are.

Technically, the core protections guaranteed by Roe v. Wade remain intact. However, those protections are eroding due to the constant onslaught by radical conservatives bent on undermining the rights of women. The goal of Roe v. Wade was to ensure a woman’s right to control the most intimate aspect of her life. Without this right, simply put, women are unable to participate equally with men in the social, political and economic life of the nation.

The road ahead remains difficult. Our health, financial security, and personal safety are constantly challenged, compromised, and limited. So while we reflect on these past forty years, let us acknowledge and celebrate the extraordinary steps we have taken to move our country towards equality.

But let us also understand that hard work and vigilance is needed now, more than ever, in the fight for women’s equality and justice.  The goal of Roe v. Wade has not been achieved, but on this anniversary it is essential that it also not be forgotten.

Kate Michelman is president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America, author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose,” and co-chair of WomenVote PA.

Carol E. Tracy is Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project and co-chair of WomenVote PA, an initiative of the Women’s Law Project.

*NOTE: This post so far has appeared in the following newspapers and/or online: the Huffington Post, the Main Line News, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and USA Today.

About womenslawproject

The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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