Roe v. Wade Anniversary: Remembering the Past, Fighting for the Future

US conservatives are making dangerous inroads in their efforts to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term
Washington D.C., USA - January 22, 2015; A Pro-Life woman clashes with a group of Pro-Choice demonstrators at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Washington D.C., USA - January 22, 2015; A Pro-Life woman clashes with a group of Pro-Choice demonstrators at the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the 46 years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, millions of women have relied on the freedom to make choices about parenthood that are right for their health and their families.  This month is the anniversary of the Court’s decision to uphold a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, which remains one of the most important watershed moments for women’s rights and health in modern history.

But the reality is that Roe hangs on only by a thread. The ultraconservative majority on the court poses a constant threat, leaving it up to individual states to be the final protectors of these fundamental rights. With an exceptionally hostile federal government, we’ve seen nothing short of a continuous assault on reproductive rights that goes far beyond restricting abortion access. Just last week, a federal judge in Pennsylvania thankfully restrained the Trump Administration from putting into place new rules that would allow employers to deny birth control coverage to their employees due to religious or moral objections.

As both a woman and a rabbi, I reject the notion that women’s access to crucial reproductive health care should be dictated by the whims or the religious views of their employer. We cannot stand by while the religious beliefs of some are incorporated into state or federal law for all. Reducing women’s access to birth control deprives them of their autonomy, their equality, their agency, and their freedom to make their own decisions. Having an abortion is a deeply personal decision that should be made only by a woman, not for her by anyone else. Before Roe, women — including my great-grandmother in the early 1900s – were forced to make dangerous and painful choices due to restrictions or outright bans on abortion access and birth control. Raising four children in a crowded tenement apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City, she and my great-grandfather barely had enough to get by. Adding more children to the family was simply not an option. This reality forced her to have two illegal, unsafe abortions, administered with a knitting needle on her kitchen table.

She was not alone. Research shows that nearly six in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers. Their reasons for having an abortion are undoubtedly complex; family, health, and financial considerations weigh heavily. The simplistic assumptions we hear too often – especially from conservative politicians – about why women should be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are paternalistic at best and deadly at worst. The message is that women cannot be trusted to be make the most crucial decisions about their bodies and their lives, and the reality is that more women, especially poor women, will die.

There has been some progress. The 2018 elections swept in new, pro-woman majorities in state legislatures that are now advancing legislation to protect and expand reproductive rights, including access to abortion. But the reality is that abortion access in the US today depends largely on your zip code. Other state legislatures, from Florida to Indiana, are proposing severe restrictions like so-called heartbeat bans, which could outlaw abortion before women even know they’re pregnant and, in some cases, even threaten them and their abortion providers with prison time. For Americans living in “abortion deserts” across the country, the right to an abortion is a right in name only.

The Trump Administration, made up overwhelmingly of white men, has no moral standing to dictate the reproductive rights of women nationwide. I’m hopeful that the new Democratic majority in the House, which includes the largest and most diverse collection of young, dynamic women ever to serve as representatives in Washington, will be able to put a check on the administration’s assault on women’s health and lay out a progressive agenda on access to abortion and contraception.

Claiming that these increasingly restrictive laws are being proposed or passed in the name of religious liberty ignores the founding principles of this country. Religious liberty was meant to be the freedom of and the freedom from religion, not an oppressive way to force the views of some on the many. We are not a Christian country but a country of freedom of religion. Our foundational text is not the bible but the Constitution. “Because the bible says so,” can never be a legitimate response in the White House, in the halls of Congress, or in the Supreme Court. And “because we say so” cannot be allowed to be a legitimate response on the most personal and heartbreaking of decisions that a woman may ever have to make.

On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade, let us pledge to continue fighting for reproductive rights until all women can receive the health care they need without infringement from the government, their employers or anyone else. But with President Trump in the White House and a conservative, anti-abortion majority on the Supreme Court, we must remain vigilant as ever to keep my great-grandmother’s era of reproductive rights where it belongs: in the past.

About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.
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