by Nancy Northup, President & CEO, Center for Reproductive Rights
With the 40th anniversary this month of the historic Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade has come a steady stream of op-eds, features, and debates in the media—with many, like a recent cover story inTIME, taking the position that abortion rights supporters have been losing in terms of politics and public opinion.
While I give these newspapers, magazines, and television shows credit for Roe the coverage it warrants, I take issue not only with the conclusion that we’re losers, but this whole way of framing the issue.
The fact is that women’s fundamental human rights should never be treated as political spoils to be won or lost. And while pundits and politicians continue to do so, the real consequences of the steady erosion of legal protections since Roe are being felt sharply in the lives of millions of women nationwide.
These consequences are being felt at the pharmacy counter, where women seeking emergency contraception get turned away if they can’t show proof of age. They’re being felt at the kitchen tables of women making tough decisions about how to pay for birth control when their employers refuse to cover it in their insurance plans. They’re being felt by the millions of women who live in the counties—87 percent of them nationwide—that do not have an abortion provider, leaving them to drive for hours to obtain a service that is not only legal, but constitutionally protected.
And if the opponents of reproductive rights get their way and either overturn Roe or continue to choke off access to reproductive health care services, the consequences will be felt by countless women whose health and very lives will be endangered by their inability to obtain the safe, legal, and essential reproductive health care they need.
The doomsayers in the media are correct at least on this point—that those hostile to women’s health and rights have been successful in chipping away at the protections that Roe once afforded. The result is a harsh reality in which women who live in states such as Mississippi, Texas, and others beset by rabid anti-choice lawmakers simply don’t have the same rights as women who live in New York and California.
These politicians have set their sights on outlawing abortion at any cost, but when women’s doctors are bullied out of practice, women aren’t just robbed of access to safe and legal means of ending unintended pregnancies.They often lose their sole resource for a host of other basic health care services, including birth control, pregnancy care, annual exams, and cancer screenings.
But that fact has been lost in the conversation we’re having right now. And if the debate continues to be confined to abortion and treated as a political game, we’ll never get to the heart of the matter.
We need a national dialogue that moves beyond a continual tallying of who’s scoring what political points or who’s winning the political fight. We need to engage in careful, thoughtful, substantive discussions about the services necessary for women’s well-being throughout their lives: comprehensive sex education in our schools, domestic violence resources, affordable and reliable contraception, fertility treatments, affordable child care, safe pregnancy and maternal health care, and yes, abortion services.
Although you wouldn’t know it from reading the recent press, these are exactly the issues that organizations and advocates across the reproductive rights movement are working to advance.
The Center for Reproductive Rights has backed up this broad vision for reproductive rights with action worldwide, fighting—and winning—many court cases to shut down laws and policies hostile to women’s health and rights and advocating for better access to life-saving obstetrics care, contraception, abortion services and comprehensive sexuality information, as well as the prevention of forced sterilization and female genital mutilation.
And we are not alone: Our allies in reproductive rights and reproductive justice organizations worldwide are working assiduously on these issues and more—including sex education, domestic violence resources, child care, and other support services for families in need.
It is certainly fair enough to suggest that we could do better at organizing around these issues, at collaborating within the movement, at reaching out to those who might be inclined to support a broader vision of what reproductive rights and justice means.
But when you look at the reproductive rights movement through the broader lens it deserves, you see that—far from losing—we have been producing important gains on many of these fronts. Last year we saw one of the single biggest advances in women’s health care in generations when a provision of the Affordable Care Act kicked in that will, for the first time ever, provide millions of American women with insurance coverage of a range of contraceptives, prenatal health services, and other essential preventive care without a co-payment. Congress finally corrected a gross injustice by lifting 17-year-old restrictions on insurance coverage of abortion care in cases of rape and incest for servicewomen and military family members. Even more states took action to outlaw the degrading practice of shackling pregnant incarcerated women during labor.
And nearly 200,000 Americans—and counting—have expressed their support for a more expansive vision of reproductive rights by supporting our recently-launched Draw The Line campaign and signing the Bill of Reproductive Rights, which explicitly addresses the need for a more holistic understanding of what reproductive health encompasses.
We will continue to fight to advance these principles, and to engage in dialogue on the full range of these issues with whomever is willing to participate. We must. Because as long as we allow reproductive rights to be reduced to single-issue political gamesmanship, many millions of women will continue to face the consequences, and pay an unacceptably heavy price.