By Lynne Huffer
“It’s Personal,” the new abortion rights campaign of the National Women’s Law Center, hinges on language like this: “Only you know what it’s like to walk in your shoes.” Another ad reads: “The decision whether to have an abortion belongs to you.”
The Law Center’s campaign is being launched to highlight Planned Parenthood’s recent decision—synchronized with this month’s 40-year anniversary of Roe v Wade—to abandon the “pro-choice” rhetoric that was born with Roe. That change in terminology responds to long-standing criticisms of a skewed political rhetoric, derived from Roe, that pits “choice” against “life” in a battle that pro-lifers have been steadily winning.
But Planned Parenthood’s shift from “choice” to “personal decision” is a superficial solution to deep-rooted problems in the reproductive rights movement. Rather than tweaking our rhetoric, those of us who truly care about social equality need to abandon not just the language but the principle that has defined the abortion rights movement for the past four decades: the medicalized right to privacy as enshrined in Roe.
With Roe’s anniversary behind us, we need to acknowledge what constitutional experts have been telling us for decades: Roe is bad law. And bad law makes for bad politics.
Here are three key points in the Roe decision. First, Roe affirms that the “right to privacy . . . is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Roe clearly argues that the State would be remiss to deny the pregnant woman this choice.
Second, this right to privacy is not absolute. Invoking a woman who might want to “terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses,” the Court states firmly: “with this we do not agree.”
Third, the Court justifies this limit on a woman’s privacy rights by affirming its interest in protecting the life of the fetus. With this comes Roe’s medicalized parsing of privacy rights into trimesters, where women’s decisions are subordinated to “the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician” and the Court’s interest in “protecting potential life.”
In these sections of Roe lie the challenge for the women’s movement 40 years later. Roepaved the way for today’s mainstream language about abortion rights as private, personal, and medical. Missing from today’s debate—and missing from Roe—is the principle of equality on which a robust politics of reproductive freedom should be founded.
Roe also reinforces the narrow focus of the mainstream abortion rights organizations that are Roe’s most visible institutional legacy. From Planned Parenthood to NARAL to the Feminist Majority, mainstream feminism perpetuates a vision of reproductive freedom that is personal and private. But the freedom of one woman cannot be separated from a more collective vision of women’s freedom, one that includes an awareness of an ongoing history of antinatalist policies directed at poor women, women of color, women with disabilities, and drug-addicted women.
Only four years after Roe, the federal Hyde Amendment’s defunding of abortion marked the beginning of a series of measures that have made abortion increasingly inaccessible to such women. Born in the cradle of early 20th-century eugenicist policies, the contemporary movement for reproductive rights cannot forget its fraught historical roots. Part of feminism’s legacy is its complicity with the systemic sterilization of Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and “feeble-minded” women.
To be sure, today’s women’s rights advocates are not as blind to these problems as they were forty years ago. Planned Parenthood’s recent decision to drop its decades-old “pro-choice” language is in large part the result of pressure from black women’s organizations and arguments by feminist scholars that have challenged the rhetoric of choice. In addition, beyond the big names such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL lies a network of less visible organizations, such as Atlanta’s SisterSong, devoted to a reproductive rights agenda that goes beyond the individual choices of white middle-class women.
Even given that, the results of Roe’s flaws are clear. Since Roe, all American women’s reproductive choices have been increasingly constrained by mandatory waiting periods, parental notification laws, fetal ultrasound requirements, and limits on abortion to cases involving rape or the mother’s life. Giving legal support to the illegal tactics of groups like Operation Rescue, anti-abortion politicians have flooded statehouses with zoning and architectural design laws intended to force the closure of hundreds of family planning clinics. What’s more, while public opinion has shifted dramatically on other women’s issues—pay equity, domestic violence, women running for president—Americans’ views on abortion have scarcely changed since Roe. At the end of the 1970s, 37% of Americans said yes to abortion on demand, as compared to 41% today. By contrast, support for women as president has shifted by 20 points since Roe—from 73% in 1975 to 92% today. As far as women’s equality goes, abortion doesn’t register as a measure of favorable change over time. Why? Because abortion is seen as a private matter, not as an equality issue.
In criticizing Roe’s flaws I’m not arguing that Roe should be overturned. I do not want abortion to be illegal, as it would be immediately in 17 states if Roe were reversed. Nor am I arguing that Planned Parenthood, NARAL, Sister Song and other abortion rights organizations should close up shop: they need to receive our continued support.
But that support must include a robust debate about the principles that guide our politics.
If we ground our politics in the principle of social equality rather than personal privacy, we will shift the terms of the debate away from a high-profile legal decision that distracts us from how women actually live their lives. Equality means not only the abstract affirmation of women’s rights as equal to those of men. It means having the capacity to exercise those rights. It means women must have precisely what we’ve lost: actual access to abortion.
While we cannot rewrite a Supreme Court decision, we can knock it from its symbolic pedestal. We can do an end-run around the rhetoric and the tactics we’ve inherited from Roe. This means long-time feminists and younger generations need to join forces to reaffirm abortion rights as an issue of access. Access to abortion is not just a personal matter. If we mean what we say—that we believe in a woman’s right to an abortion—then we must fight together for women’s ability to exercise that right before it disappears altogether.
Lynne Huffer is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University and a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project.