Roe's Case for Ownership

Today is the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and instead of doing the same old thing and focusing on the right to abortion, I'd like to examine some of the political fallout that occurred after this momentous event that signaled to the women of America that we own our bodies. We do. Not your husband, not your boyfriend, not your parents, not your church. In deciding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court did more than simply legalize abortion. It sent the signal to women of the country that we do in fact have the right to control our own bodies and sexuality.

It's well understood that one of the primary motivations of the anti-abortion movement is generating a steady supply of white babies into the adoption market, a supply that has dried up since Roe was decided 35 years ago. Most people assume that the reason that the supply of white babies dried up was the prevalence of abortion after 1973. Certainly, anti-choice activists give every indication of believing this, pleading with women to consider adoption instead of abortion, setting up maternity homes and crisis pregnancy centers to pressure women into giving up babies for adoption and even going so far as to require that anyone applying for "don't get an abortion" funds gives the baby up for adoption. The intense interest in adoption makes the anti-choice movement ten times creepier of course, because they can't even hide that they see women less as human beings and more as baby factories producing for "worthier" couples. Take into consideration how anti-choice organizations also oppose all forms of pregnancy prevention, including contraception and sex education, and you have a pretty damning stack of evidence that all this sturm und drang about abortion is about making sure that every infertile white couple who wants a baby that looks like them gets one.

But the statistics indicate that it's not so much abortion that's changed the game as single motherhood. Before 1973, 19% of unmarried white women who had babies gave them up for adoption. Between 1973 and 1981, the rate plummeted to 8%. By 1988, it was 3%. Nowadays, less than 1% of teenage mothers of all races give up the baby for adoption. The statistics speak a truth rarely mentioned: ‘Twasn't the legalization of abortion that made it impossible to adopt a healthy white baby. After all, we already know that women had plenty of abortions when it was illegal. It was the legitimization of single motherhood for middle class white women that made the difference.

So why do the adoption-obsessed anti-choicers hate Roe so damn much? Well, they're not entirely incorrect in thinking that Roe dried up the adoption market, even if they're wrong to think that abortion did. 1973 does seem to be the breaking point, the end of the stream of white, middle class girls giving up babies for adoption. It seems women across the nation realized that if they had a right to abort a pregnancy, they also had a right to keep a baby, and didn't have to give it up just because their parents, church, and community said so. People treat "choice" like a code word for "abortion", but it really does mean "choice"--the choice to have an abortion, sure, but also the choice to be a single mother, to be childless, to delay marriage, never to marry at all, or to be a lesbian.

SCOTUS said to the women of America, "Your body belongs to you," and the nation listened. After 1973, anti-rape and anti-domestic violence activism erupted. Wife-beating stopped being a dirty little secret and became a major political issue. A woman who owns her own body not only has the right to terminate pregnancies and use birth control, she gets to say when she has sex and when she does not. The rape rate has plummeted since the 1970s; how much of that was due to the fact that people really started to believe in a woman's right to own herself?

Roe the court case was about abortion, but Roe the cultural landmark was about a multitude of women's rights. So when you hear politicians or activists talking about overturning Roe v. Wade, can you really believe that it's just about abortion? Or do they hate all of it--women's right to work, women's equality in marriage, women's right not to be raped, women's right to single motherhood, women's right to file for divorce?

I was born in 1977, years after what might be the most famous 20th century Supreme Court decision, at least next to Brown v. the Board of Education. My generation has a reputation, to say the least, of being a bit ungrateful, a tad full of ourselves, unaware of how hard our feminist foremothers struggled. Sometimes the third-wavers deserve the ugly stereotypes about being ignorant and arrogant, and sometimes we deserve the positive ones about being sexy and fun-loving. The one thread that runs through it all is that we grew up never really knowing what it's like not to live in a society where the fundamental concept "I own myself," isn't true for us.

Things are far from perfect for women of my generation and the one after it, of course, but at least we know this much that our foremothers had to fight to know, that our bodies are ours. It's such a conceptual shift that it's hard to know how that translates into everyday life. Do I feel a little more comfortable taking up the armrest in the movie theater than my mother did? Do I feel a little less obligated to wear socially mandated uncomfortable clothing? I know this one is true. Am I a little more surprised when a man gooses me in public? I think so. It's hard to put a measure on the individual, small details, but in accumulation, it's been a big change.


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