Remembering Roe

Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court opinion whose 31st anniversary falls today, was not yet a decade old when I became pregnant. I was 17, living on my own, and the pregnancy was unwanted.

Since graduating from high school I had passed through a succession of menial, low-paying jobs: selling women's clothing at a store in the local mall, working as a waitress, and the most mind-numbingly tedious of all, making rubber skateboard wheels in a machine shop. My savings were nil. With my pay stubs, proof of residence, and the dismaying results of a pregnancy test, I paid a visit to the welfare office and qualified for emergency Medi-Cal, California's program for the public funding of medical care.

The abortion procedure was fast and relatively painless. I faced a couple of anti-abortion protesters in the parking lot when I arrived that morning -- they held up pictures of fetuses for my inspection -- but they were gone by the time I left. My recovery from the procedure was quick and without complications.

The enormous sense of relief I felt after the operation has, over the years, ripened into gratitude. I was lucky that legal abortion was available and doubly lucky that the state of California was willing to fund it. Today not every woman facing an unwanted pregnancy is so fortunate.

Mounting Restrictions

Even though, as the Supreme Court said in 1992, "an entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe's concept of liberty," the right to a safe and legal abortion remains under threat. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 335 anti-choice measures have been enacted since 1995. President Bush has openly endorsed the goal of banning abortion, and some of his federal judicial picks have been anti-abortion zealots, a worrying indicator for his possible future nominees to the Supreme Court.

Publicly funded abortion is not available in most states, except in narrow cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Since 1977, federal law has prohibited Medicaid from paying for the abortions of low-income women in most circumstances. Because fewer than half of all states offer supplemental funding that goes beyond these federal limitations, the possibility of abortion is foreclosed to many poor women.

Mandatory parental consent or notification rules, which exist in more than 30 states, deter many teenagers from exercising their constitutional right to a legal abortion. Minors with abusive parents may risk physical or emotional harm if required to disclose their pregnancies. Judicial bypass procedures, which the Supreme Court has ruled must be included in parental consent and notice laws, may be ineffective when the reviewing judge is hostile to abortion.

Numerous procedural restrictions continue to impede women's access to abortion. Now, in 20 states, women seeking abortion face mandatory delays in obtaining the procedure, a requirement that is often paired with the obligation of receiving state-dictated informational materials designed to discourage abortion. Such rules particularly burden women who live long distances from abortion providers, or whose transportation arrangements are difficult. Other state laws target doctors who perform abortions, imposing complicated regulatory schemes.

The latest effort to hobble reproductive rights has been to redefine what constitutes an abortion, via legislation like the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Although the Supreme Court struck down the most restrictive of these laws, adopted in Nebraska, others have passed lower court scrutiny. Although they are supposed to cover only late-term abortions, the imprecise and unscientific language of such laws means that their scope threatens to extend far beyond the situations cited by their supporters.

Roe's Beneficiaries

In campaigning to limit or deny reproductive rights, anti-abortion activists have devised not only new strategies but also new justifications. No longer focused solely on fetal rights, the anti-abortion lobby now professes concern for "post-abortion victims" -- that is, women who have undergone abortions. Abortion, in this view, causes inevitable emotional trauma. The denial of abortion has accordingly been recast as a means to save women from a lifetime of psychic pain and regret.

Perhaps the most prominent exponent of this new dogma is Norma McCorvey, the original plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. McCorvey, though, never obtained an abortion; the ruling she is known for came too late for that. And Roe, importantly, was a class action, litigated on behalf of an open-ended group of women seeking to end their pregnancies.

McCorvey may have changed her mind, but many of us who benefited from her legal fight have not. As a fortunate heir to the right she helped establish, I have no regrets about my choice. And I know there are many more women like me who will, on this anniversary, remember their debt to Roe.

Joanne Mariner is a human rights attorney and columnist for FindLaw.com.

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