Roe at 40: Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Today marks the 40thanniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic Supreme Court decision recognizing that women have the right to choose abortion.  While lawmakers and pundits have twisted themselves into knots analyzing the impact and significance of the decision, for generations of people, the meaning of Roe is quite clear: It is the key to securing women’s place as equals in society.

For 10 years, Linn Duvall Harwell could only guess as to why her mother died so suddenly in 1929.  But when she found out that her mother, Clara Bell Duvall, died of an illegal abortion, Linn instantly understood.  “She loved her children…She was desperate because she wanted to care for them beautifully,” she told the Philadelphia Daily News  in 1986. While Linn understood the sacrifice her mother made, she knew it was a senseless loss. 

Linn held many jobs in her life, but the one nearest and dearest to her was pro-choice activist – as a member of NARAL Pro-Choice Americ a, the National Organization of Women and the founder of the Clara Bell Duvall Education Fund (now the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU of Pennsylvania).  In a letter addressed to Representative Karen Ritter in 1990 Linn wrote, “The last thing a woman wants to consider when faced with an unwanted pregnancy is some bureaucrat sitting in an office in Harrisburg or a robed judge in a courtroom…. No woman can make advances in a career without the protection of her reproductive rights.”  It’s chilling to think that those words are just as true today as they were in 1990.

Linn wasn’t the only person fighting for reproductive rights.  As a college student in 1970, Peter Goldberger smuggled a friend to a secret location in Delaware, where she could obtain an abortion.  “I knew it was civil disobedience, but I don’t think I considered any part of it other than doing the right thing for a friend in trouble,” he recalled.  “It was the right thing to do because it is what she had decided.”  It was only last week that he realized that, had he been caught, he would have faced up to five years in jail.

Later as a law student at Yale, Goldberger thought back to that night as he sat in classes and watched his colleagues on the frontlines of public interest law.  When Roe was decided in the second semester of his first year of law school, he reflected that the decision itself wasn’t a “gigantic event” on campus.  But for him, it was monumental. “The freedom to make that choice…is critical to women’s ability to succeed and be on an equal plane.”  He added that he had always thought that – but seeing it codified was another thing.

Jumping forward to today, we see a national climate that is as hostile as ever to reproductive justice.  But we also see a debate that has become more nuanced and more diverse than in previous decades. “Women born after Roe v. Wade – known as millennials — see ‘choice’ as more complex than their predecessors,” says Alanna Tievsky, born a decade after Roe v. Wade. “So many of our fundamental rights are under attack – we can no longer narrowly focus only on access to abortion.”

Indeed, the battle is no longer just about safe, legal abortion – it’s defending the right to contraception, to maternal leave, to bodily integrity.  It’s about honoring the rights of women and men whose lives may not look like ours – and valuing their voices in the conversation.  And it’s about remaining constantly vigilant in a political climate that is slowly but surely chipping away at Roe and the full spectrum of reproductive choices we depend upon.” The legacy of millennial women will be reframing the debate around abortion to a dialogue that is more encompassing, more diverse, and more in tune with the needs of women and men, at every stage of their reproductive lives,” argues Gwen Emmons, a millennial and a reproductive justice activist.  “It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”

Unfortunately for millennial activists in this field, it’s challenging to get a toehold in the leadership structure of the ‘old school’ abortion rights organizations. “Despite the fact that young reproductive activists are working in these organizations, losing sleep on the campaign trail, or manning the phones at abortion hotlines, previous generations argue that we ‘lack passion for abortion rights,’” says Emmons.  “If we’re to be the next guardians of reproductive choice, things have got to change.”  Tievsky notes the numerous strategies this generation has been using to combat the onslaught of anti-women’s health legislation locally and nationally. “A difference in strategies does not make us less passionate than Peter,” she argues.  “A belief in a broader vision of what choice is does not mean we cannot stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Linn.”  But that is the opinion of too many leaders in the choice movement.

Roe has had a profound impact on the fight for women’s equality.  Each generation has reacted to the continued attacks on women’s health with their own brand of activism.  For Linn Duvall Harwell, it was to volunteer and speak out at every opportunity she could.  For Peter Goldberger, it was to do the right thing – even if it was illegal.  And for Alanna Tievsky and Gwen Emmons, it’s to question the strategies and direction of previous generations – and plot a new course for the future.  As we look ahead to another 40 years of Roe(and beyond!), the goal must not only be to defend this monumental decision – it must be to nurture, inspire, and trustthe next generation of activists who will be protecting it.

Pledge to stand strong against attacks on Roe and all reproductive freedoms – then spread the word.

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