Today, policies regarding legal abortion in the U.S. are being debated everywhere from the halls of Congress to the street corners of our smallest towns. Many myths and misconceptions confuse the issue. Although the history of abortion in the United States is far older than the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, that decision marked an important turning point in public health policy. It made it possible for women to get safe, legal abortions from well-trained medical practitioners and therefore led to dramatic decreases in pregnancy-related injury and death.
The Roe case arose out of a Texas law that prohibited legal abortion except to save a woman's life. At that time, most other states had laws similar to the one in Texas. The effect of those laws was that large numbers of women resorted to illegal abortions that were dangerous because of poorly trained practitioners or unsanitary conditions. "Jane Roe," a 21-year-old pregnant woman, represented all women who wanted abortions but could not get them legally and safely because of these laws. Henry Wade was the Texas Attorney General who defended the law that made abortions illegal.
After hearing the case, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans' right to privacy included the right of a woman to decide whether to have children, and the right of a woman and her doctor to make that decision without state interference.
The reaction to Roe was swift. Supporters of legal abortion rejoiced and generally felt their battle was won. Since the Roe decision, the quality of care that women receive has never been higher. With highly skilled abortion providers and numerous scientific advances, abortion has become one of the safest medical procedures available to women. Providing more than half the abortions that take place each year in the U.S., members of the National Abortion Federation are proud to provide women with the highest quality care available.
However, others faulted the Court for a decision they viewed as immoral. Those opposed to legal abortion immediately began working at the grassroots and national levels to prevent any federal or state funding for abortion and to undermine or limit the effect of the decision. Some turned to measures directly aimed at disrupting the sites where abortions were being provided. Their tactics have included demonstrating in front of abortion clinics, harassing people trying to enter, vandalizing clinic property, and blocking access to the clinics. As time passed, the level of anti-choice violence escalated. Increasingly, clinic bombings, physical attacks, and even murders endanger abortion providers and create a hostile environment for women seeking abortions.
Initially, the framework of Roe v. Wade served as the basis by which the constitutionality of state laws related to abortion was determined. In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has begun to allow more restrictions on abortion. For instance, the Supreme Court's ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 established that states can restrict pre-viability abortions, even in the first trimester in ways that are not medically necessary, as long as such restrictions do not place an "undue burden" on women seeking abortion care. Thus many states now have restrictions in place such as requirements that young pregnant women involve their parents or a judge in their abortion decisions, that mandated waiting periods be observed between the time a woman first visits an abortion provider and when the abortion can be provided, and that scripts with information designed to frighten women and discourage women from having abortions be presented. The requirement that a woman involve her spouse in her decision was disallowed.
Currently, many women, particularly low-income women, women in rural communities and young women, have difficulty accessing safe abortion care. In 2000, 87% of counties in the U.S. did not have a single abortion provider, and this number increased to 97% for non-metropolitan counties. Legislators continue to introduce and support federal and state anti-choice legislation that serves to chip away at women's access and the fundamental principles of Roe, ultimately endangering the lives and health of women.
In 2004, forty-four state legislatures across the country considered over 500 anti-choice bills, including abortion bans, biased counseling bills, restrictions on minors' access to care, bills restricting public funding of abortion, and Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) bills. Twenty bills restricting abortion services or abortion funding were enacted. At the federal level, Congress cast over 20 anti-choice votes during its session and anti-choices members of Congress consistently found new ways to attack choice and women's access to abortion.
A woman's fundamental right to choose abortion has never been more imperiled than it is today. We are faced with an anti-choice Congress and White House which would like to make abortion illegal. In the last Supreme Court case on abortion in June 2000, Stenberg v. Carhart (Carhart I), only five justices supported Roe and a woman's right to choose. With the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, President Bush now has the ability to destroy this fragile five to four balance that currently protects women's access to safe and legal abortion in the United States. If just one justice who currently supports Roe is replaced by one who does not, Roe could be reversed and women could lose their right to choose in this country.