January 22, 2013

Only moments before she appeared in front of the Supreme Court to deliver what would be a successful argument in the landmark case Roe v. Wade, 26-year-old attorney Sarah Weddington found herself with one more thing to worry about: The lawyers’ lounge where she was waiting had only a men’s room.

This month, as we mark Roe v. Wade’s 40th anniversary, we can rejoice that the Supreme Court now has a ladies’ room. But is that all we have to celebrate?

Over the past 40 years, state legislatures across the country have managed to place a slew of impediments, inconveniences and indignities between women and their right to choose.

In 1992, the court ruled that states can pass laws regulating abortion as long as the laws do not constitute an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion services. But the interpretation of “undue burden” has turned out to be pretty narrow.

Are parental notification laws an undue burden? Or requiring doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals? Or requiring a clinic to have five-foot-wide hallways? The official stance is no, no and no.

But, taken together, the anti-choice movement’s piecemeal efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive services have, in many places, effectively nullified a woman’s legal right to control her own body. Today, 87 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, and many states have only a clinic or two, staffed by a doctor who flies in from another state. The right to abortion is meaningful only for middle-class women lucky enough to live in states where the courts and legislatures have not whittled it away.

Yet, despite the ongoing struggle, there may be something worth celebrating after all.

Sure, we’ve been subjected to an endless parade of white man after white man discussing reproductive rights with not mere insensitivity but downright ignorance. (You know things are bad when a right-wing group called — with a stunning lack of self-awareness or irony — the Susan B. Anthony List is training GOP legislators to just shut up about rape.)

The good news, however, is that women’s reproductive rights are back in the conversation.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards noted unity among young women and men “who understand that none of these rights or access can be taken for granted.”

This new generation — one that has never known a pre-Roe world of back-alley abortions and other desperations — is one that NARAL Pro-Choice America’s new president, Ilyse Hogue, is determined to bring into the movement. And she has her work cut out for her: According to the Pew Research Center, only 44 percent of Americans under 30 years old can correctly identify that Roe v. Wade dealt with abortion.

At the same time, 63 percent of Americans oppose overturning the law. And that’s because, as Hogue points out, people understand — today more than ever — that women’s freedom to realize their dreams “is grounded in our foundational right to decide where, how, and with whom we have a family.” To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, without power over the fate of their bodies, women can have no power at all.

That’s why it’s heartening to see state-level action by leaders like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who recently introduced a 10-Point Women’s Equality Act that addresses pay equity, domestic violence, human trafficking laws, pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment and, yes, reproductive rights. Reproductive rights are an important piece of the puzzle — but still only one piece of it.

Organizations like the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) are mobilizing with a broad range of groups to build a coalition in support of the effort. As NYCLU’s Corinne Carey said, “Women’s income disparities and opportunity disparities are not unique to New York.” The groundswell of support behind Cuomo’s initiative reflects the energy of a broader national movement to expand women’s equality.

It’s a movement with major victories under its belt, including the elections of a pro-choice, progressive president, and a record number of progressive, pro-choice women in Congress. The first legislation President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, a major step toward equal pay for equal work. Obamacare requires insurance companies to offer free access to contraception and vital preventive health services. With the support of a broad alliance of advocates, the president is fighting to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with expanded protections for minority groups. And, perhaps most enduring, he has nominated two pro-choice women to the Supreme Court, with the possibility of more nominations in the next four years.

Forty years after Roe, we have, indeed, come far — but there is still a long road ahead. As President Obama reminded us Monday in his second inaugural address, “our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” For those who will come after us, it is time to build on the legacy of those who fought before us, “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” with equality as their guiding star.

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Ann Telnaes: 40 years of Roe v. Wade