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Speaking Truth to Power When Women’s Lives are at Stake: Abortion

Just about every American woman of child-bearing age was born after abortion was legalized. They have no personal, first-hand experience of having to break the law to end an unwanted pregnancy. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, that a woman’s right to choose an abortion was protected by the privacy rights […]

Just about every American woman of child-bearing age was born after abortion was legalized. They have no personal, first-hand experience of having to break the law to end an unwanted pregnancy. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, that a woman’s right to choose an abortion was protected by the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In one fell swoop, laws whose implementation caused pain, mutilation and death to untold numbers of women were struck down.

The outcry from some religious bodies was swift and thunderous. Several members of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops testified before Congress in 1974 in support of an amendment to the Constitution to “protect the unborn.” Cardinal Medeiros went so far as to say: “As for an amendment which would generally prohibit abortion but permit it in certain exceptional circumstances, such as when a womanʹs life is considered to be threatened, the Catholic Conference does not endorse such an approach in principle and could not conscientiously support it.”

And while some evangelical churches were initially either supportive of the decision legalizing abortion, or lukewarm in their opposition, others were outspoken in their condemning Roe v Wade. The National Association of Evangelicals wrote: “We deplore, in the strongest possible terms, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court which has made it legal to terminate a pregnancy for no better reason than personal convenience or sociological considerations.”

The evangelical magazine Christianity Today wrote that “the decision runs counter not merely to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people.”

Likewise, some legal scholars opposed the decision.  In a 1973 article in the Yale Law Journal,[9] Professor John Hart Ely criticized Roe as a decision that “is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.”  And Edward Lazarus, a former Supreme Court clerk wrote: “As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible…”

Over the last 46 years, there has been an unrelenting struggle to make abortion illegal, unaffordable, and out of the reach of many women who live in rural areas, or who have difficulty accessing medical care. The draconian anti-abortion laws passed recently in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio, are only the latest salvoes in the battle to wrest from women their ability to control their own reproductive lives.

Returning to the days when abortion was illegal would have catastrophic results. I saw them firsthand. I was a medical student and young doctor in the late sixties and early seventies; what I saw before abortion was legalized was forever branded in my memory.

In those days, a woman was forced to place herself in the hands of unskilled and often unscrupulous abortionists when she was faced with a pregnancy she could not continue. I saw women brought into emergency rooms in septic shock, with perforated wombs, even disemboweled by incompetent butchers because their own physicians were prohibited by law from helping them. These experiences radicalized me. Because of them, I joined the fight to legalize abortion.

The fetus-fetishists (calling them “pro-life” is a travesty) try to frame the debate around the issue of whether fetal life is human life. They claim that abortion is murder because they believe that from the moment of conception a fetus is a human being, but a fetus is no more a human being than an acorn is an oak. And even if the fetus, or the embryo, or—to use the old Catholic teaching—the sperm itself were defined as human, the rights which anti-abortion laws give to them would still be far in excess of the rights enjoyed by any human being in this society, especially by women.

No human being’s right to life includes the right to use another person’s body, or any part of it, without that person’s consent—not his kidney, his cornea, a graft of his skin or a pint of his blood. Yet anti-abortion laws give a fetus the right to occupy an unwilling person’s abdomen and use not just her uterus, but every major organ system in her body—without her consent.

Before Roe v Wade, anywhere from 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions a year were performed in the United States and an estimated 5,000 women died each year as a result

Laws criminalizing abortion aren’t just inherently sexist. They are also racist. Women die without access to safe, legal abortion—and minority women die more often. From 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for nonwhite women was 12 times that for white women.

The real issue is not viability, is not whether fetal life is human life – the real issue is whether women have the right to control their own bodies. Patriarchal, misogynistic ideologues will fight hard to deny women this right, but we will resist with every weapon in our armamentarium. These must include organizing massive peaceful demonstrations, registering to vote and voting for pro-choice candidates, contacting our local, state, and national elected officials to make our views on abortion rights clear, and organizing boycotts of states that pass restrictive abortion laws. We will never return to the days of back-alley, coat-hanger abortions. We will speak truth to power and we will be victorious.

Barbara H. Roberts, MD

Dr. Roberts was a co-founder of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) and a staff physician at Planned Parenthood of RI for many years. She is the former director of the Women’s Cardiac Center at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI, and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She has written for the Daily Beast and Ms. Magazine and her latest book, The Doctor Broad: A Mafia Love Story will be published by Heliotrope Books in September.

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