Reproductive Rights Special Report:
2nd Anniversary of Roe v. Wade
Demands Re-Dedication

Jan. 21, 2005

Jan. 22, 2005 marks the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's historic decision recognizing a woman's right to privacy in deciding whether to have an abortion. The National Organization for Women and our many allies have traversed a long and dangerous path over the past three decades in our continuing work to protect this fundamental human right.

The re-election of a committed opponent of women's reproductive freedom in George W. Bush and with larger Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives portends an intensified effort to prohibit abortion and further reduce women's access to reproductive health services. Several new senators, Republicans Tom Coburn (Okla.) and David Vitter (La.) among others, are known as extremist opponents of women's reproductive rights and will be moving their own regressive measures. In addition, the relentless parade of abortion rights opponents in the more than 200 judicial nominees that the Bush administration has named and the Senate has confirmed will radicalize federal courts far into the future.

Abortion rights and contraception access opponents are poised at this beginning of a new presidential term to name a Supreme Court Chief Justice who will take a leadership role in reversing Roe. It is expected that 80-year old Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer, will soon resign from the court and other aging justices may follow.

Many state legislative Republican majorities will consider restrictive bills in upcoming sessions, while millions of dollars will flow from the Catholic bishops and far right Protestant groups to wage their campaigns to deny women's reproductive freedom and access to a full range of health care services.

Worse, some conservative leaders in the Democratic party have suggested that the party's historic stance in support of women's right to an abortion needs to be modified.

Only through the firm re-dedication of advocates for women's reproductive health and freedom can we push back regressive legislation and policies, stop confirmation of extremist judges and promote initiatives that advance unlimited access to care.

Recent rumors indicate that dozens of human needs programs will be dramatically under-funded and even eliminated in the administration's 2006 budget, to be sent to Congress in early February. Medicaid will face additional severe funding cuts, threatening the loss of pregnancy-related services, family planning, breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment care for low-income women, including prescription coverage and long-term care for three million low-income elderly women. Family planning advocates are holding their breath over expectations that funding for domestic family planning Title X services will take a severe beating as well.

Reduced federal revenues resulting from Bush's massive tax cuts are cited as the reason for reductions in vital social programs. But Republican objectives all along have been to severely disable the federal government's ability to fund discretionary programs - as well as some entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. These ultra-conservative politicians are coming closer to those ends, and many in the Democratic leadership seem unable to effectively counter this Darwinian Republican agenda.

Not All Is Hopeless

In Congress, our loyal friends and supporters are introducing positive legislation that re-affirms a progressive commitment to Roe's guarantee of reproductive freedom and to a national goal of expanding health care coverage. Among these (listed as previously offered in the 108th Congress) are the:

  • Compassionate Assistance for Rape Emergencies Act, sponsored by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), to provide emergency contraceptives to women who are survivors of sexual assault.
  • Emergency Contraception Education Act, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to disseminate information on the use, safety, and availability of emergency contraception.
  • A comprehensive pregnancy prevention package including the Equity in Prescription Contraceptive Coverage Act (EPICC), to be offered by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
  • Freedom of Choice Act, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and others, to prohibit, consistent with Roe v. Wade, the government's interference with a woman's right to choose to bear a child or terminate a pregnancy, among other provisions.

Anti-Choice Activism in Congress

Legislation expected to be pushed by opponents includes the:

  • Child Custody Protection Act, to prosecute those who accompany a minor across state lines to obtain reproductive health services, in violation of the home state's parental involvement laws. It has been passed by the House in previous sessions.
  • Informed Choice Act, sponsored by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and others, to fund grants so phony "pregnancy crisis" clinics can purchase ultrasound equipment to show pregnant women images of their fetuses and talk them out of considering abortion.
  • Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Ks.), that would require physicians to inform women that abortion causes pain to the fetus, offer pain-reducing drugs for the fetus, and then require a signature of the woman to indicate she has refused or accepted pain-reducing drugs.
  • Continued funding of a number of abstinence-only programs, at more than $168 million annually, even though they have been shown to be ineffective and misleading about sexual activity and its consequences.

Undoubtedly, Republican anti-choice activists will fight efforts to repeal the ban on abortion services for military women stationed overseas (even though servicewomen continue to be raped) and to oppose withdrawal of Bush's harmful Global Gag Rule that denies reproductive health care services to some 34 million desperately poor women and their families in developing countries.

What Is the Future of Roe?

The question remains as to whether the Republican leadership, emboldened by their wins in November, will try to advance legislation that would reverse the Roe decision. Bills to do just that have been introduced in previous Congresses, but have never made it to committee consideration. If a woman's right to abortion were to fall, whether by legislation or by a radicalized Supreme Court, what would happen?

The Center for Reproductive Rights has examined the question and notes that a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would not make abortion illegal in the U.S., it would just remove federal constitutional protection for a woman's right to choose, leaving it up to the states to determine their policies on abortion.

Currently, there is a risk of losing abortion rights in 30 states if Roe is reversed. Twenty-one of those states—most of the southern states, with nine Midwestern and mountain states—are categorized as "high risk" possibilities. Only in 20 states, mostly on the coasts, is the right to abortion secure.

This is not to overlook the fact that state legislatures can pass new laws at any time on the question. (Check to see how your state is classified.) Therefore, it is essential that activists work to establish a solid basis in their state for protecting women's abortion rights—regardless of future Supreme Court decisions.

Our opponents have a long-term plan of advancing legislation and litigation to eventually draw the Supreme Court into a re-examination of Roe. Advocates for women's abortion rights and contraception access must also develop and implement a long-term plan, combined with adequate funding. Mass marches, like the record-breaking March for Women's Lives, in April 2004 in Washington, are wonderful for demonstrating huge support and recruiting new activists. But there is no substitute for carefully monitoring Congress and your state government on abortion legislation and policy, for alerting your networks on pending measures, for communicating frequently with elected officials about restrictive and harmful legislation and for working in campaigns to elect feminist legislators.

We cannot expect that Roe will always exist or assume that it is sufficient to fully protect women's reproductive rights. Even today, because of hundreds of restrictive state and federal laws and policies, many women, particularly low-income women, adolescents and women of color, have little access to a full range of reproductive health care options.

Women of Color Disproportionately Hurt

"For many Latinas, it is as if Roe v. Wade never happened," notes Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health "Despite the fact that a majority of Latinas support the full range of reproductive health services including abortion, contraception and sexuality education, many are not able to access these services." Henriquez cites language, economic and geographic barriers limiting access, as well as the fact that 40 percent of Latinas do not have health insurance.

Additionally, Henriquez reports that 50 percent of all pregnancies for Latinas are unintended and that only a third of Latinas of child-bearing age visited a family planning provider in the last year. Similar factors exist to prevent African American women and members of other minority ethnic and racial groups from obtaining vital, life-saving reproductive health care.

George W. Bush's Plan

Here are a few of the Bush administration's first-term accomplishments:

  • Dangerously limited access to emergency contraception (EC)
  • Signed into law an unconstitutional federal abortion ban
  • Expanded ineffective,biased abstinence-only programs
  • Relentlessly pushed so-called "fetal rights" initiatives
  • Weakened Title X domestic family planning programs
  • Denied vital health care services to millions of poor women in 140 nations
  • Attempted to weaken a global consensus on reproductive rights as basic human rights and obstructing a U.N. agenda for children's health around sexual education and adolescent health care needs

And, they're not done yet. In addition to the previously cited anti-abortion and anti-contraception bills that Bush's Republican friends in Congress are promoting, there will be new, more harmful efforts, such as:

  • The appointment of possibly as many as four anti-Roe Supreme Court justices, including a Chief Justice;
  • The nominations of more anti-women's rights, anti-reproductive rights judges to lower courts;
  • Appeal decisions in three federal abortion ban cases where lower courts found the law unconstitutional;
  • The push for other legislation in Congress that might lead to overturning Roe and on the push for restrictive state legislation that will end up in the Supreme Court;
  • Finding other opportunities to incorporate "fetal rights" in federal law and statutes, to the detriment of women's rights and reproductive health;
  • Defending the Weldon Amendment (otherwise known as the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, included in the FY '05 budget) which denies federal funding to state or local governments that "discriminate" against health care organizations that do not provide, pay for or provide referrals for abortion services;
  • Using a similar provision to restrict access to contraception for not just adolescents, but adults as well;
  • Making a repeat attempt through the Department of Justice to subpoena private medical records of abortion patients and using this information, investigate providers of abortion services and seek legal actions against providers not strictly adhering to protocols;
  • Creating new restrictions for Medicaid clients obtaining abortions after being raped or facing a life-threatening health condition and overhauling Medicaid in a way that many or all reproductive health services are prohibited;
  • Re-introducing legislation to withdraw contraception coverage for federal employees, including military personnel;
  • Supporting legal challenges to state contraceptive equity laws (that require insurance plans that cover other prescription medicines to also cover prescription contraception);
  • Further cutting funding for Title X family planning programs that serve 4.5 million low-income women, requiring all clients to be given information about adoption and mandating parental involvement when services are provided to adolescents;
  • Re-instating the domestic gag rule, requiring Title X clinics to separate their provision of abortion services from their provision of contraceptive services—an initiative that women's abortion rights advocates successfully fought back in 1992 (Rust v. Sullivan).

This is not by any means an exhaustive list. Advocates for women's reproductive freedom and health must re-dedicate their time, energy and financial resources to our ongoing campaign to safeguard a fundamental human right to control one's own reproductive life.