NOW President Patricia Ireland speaks out at a Roe anniversary protest on the steps of the Supreme Court last year. Photo by Beth Corbin.
by Mira Weinstein,
While NOW and abortion rights allies honor the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22, many of us will assess the current state of our hard-fought freedom.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to abortion, fewer and fewer women are able to exercise that right. In the 25 years since the decision, anti-abortion forces have succeeded in chipping away at access to abortion and at the constitutional basis for the right to abortion.
In countless communities across the country, women without a support network of escorts, friends or family do not have a choice. While activists in some areas have been successful in winning injunctions against anti-abortion protesters, women often face harassment and threats when they approach a clinic. (See Scheidler update.)
Doctors and clinic workers are frequently targets of the most deadly anti-abortion terrorism. Most recently, Dr. Jack Fainman, an OB/GYN in Canada, was shot through a window in his own home. The bullet barely missed the doctor's heart. Despite evidence that the assailant was part of the U.S. anti-abortion movement, this murder attempt received little attention in the U.S. press.
While terrorists aim to discourage other physicians from providing abortion services, the threat of violence also effects building owners and tenants where clinics are located. In Greensboro, N.C., a clinic had to close its doors when the building owner refused to renew the lease. A month later, the only remaining clinic suffered an arson attack, the second in six years. Greensboro NOW activists demonstrated outside the federal building there to send a clear message that women, abortion providers and clinics must be free from violence or the threat of violence if Roe v. Wade is to be a practical reality rather than just a theory.
In 28 states, young women do not have a choice. After the Supreme Court decision in Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, many states rushed to enact parental notification laws. In this decision, the Supreme Court said that parental notification laws are constitutional as long they include a judicial bypass for young women for whom obtaining parental permission is not an option. While states are constitutionally required to provide a judicial bypass, many young women do not have the resources necessary to navigate the legal system.
Women in rural areas of the country do not have a choice. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that in 84 percent of U.S. counties, there is no abortion provider. The pool of doctors qualified to perform the procedure is small and shrinking. In 1996, Congress passed an appropriations bill that prohibits states from requiring abortion training – even for those providing abortion services – at medical schools, and threatens hospital residency programs with the loss of all federal and state funds.
In 30 states, poor women do not have a choice. In 1977, the Hyde Amendment prevented states from using federal Medicaid funds for abortions. This ban on federal funding for poor women remains in effect, approved each year by Congress.
Although the states are allowed to use their own money to help poor women obtain abortions, only 20 states choose to do so. When the Council of the District of Columbia voted to use local funds for abortion, Congress overrode that vote and prevented the city from providing this service to poor women. As any program or restriction that affects poor people disproportionately affects women of color, many women of color have even less access to abortion than do white women.
Women in prison and Native American women on reservations do not have a choice. Since many incarcerated women are also poor, they face the same restrictions in Medicaid coverage. Even if a woman in prison can afford to pay for an abortion, prison health care facilities do not perform the procedure. Judges and prison officials seldom grant leave to prisoners for this purpose.
The federal government ban on abortion services extends to women on Native American reservations as well. The sole provider of health care on reservations, Indian Health Services, is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, thereby denying Native American women a choice.
Federal employees and women in the military overseas do not have a choice. The health insurance coverage federal employees and their dependents receive does not cover abortion, thanks to congressional action on Treasury Department/Postal Service appropriations bills since 1995.
For the past several years Congress has voted to prevent military hospitals overseas from performing abortions, even if the woman pays for the procedure herself. This policy is particularly harsh for women and their dependents whose only access to medical care is through the U.S. military.
Women whose health risks call for specific procedures are in danger of losing their choice. This year, women narrowly escaped another chip at Roe v. Wade when President Clinton vetoed the ban on D&X abortions. Congress attempted to ban the procedure for pre-and post-viability abortions, except to save the woman's life. Clinton vetoed the bill on the grounds that it did not contain an exemption to preserve the woman's health, as required by previous Supreme Court decisions. Congressional sponsors of the bill vow to try to override the veto next year.
Who still has a choice? Middle-class women, over 18 years of age, employed in the private sector, in urban areas, in the early stages of a pregnancy and when an active feminist community provides escorts or has won an enforceable injunction against anti-abortion demonstrators.
While many activists thought Roe v. Wade was the end of a long struggle for abortion rights, it turned out to be only the beginning. In candle-light vigils, marches, rallies, pickets, news conferences and electoral campaigns this month, activists will not only commemorate this landmark decision, but also devise strategies to win back our access to this vital right.