Today Marks 47 Years Since Roe v Wade: How Far Have We Really Come?

This year marks 47 years of reproductive rights since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s choice to end her pregnancy was protected under the Constitution. Roe v. Wade, often referred to as a “landmark decision,” has recently spurred a national reckoning over abortion rights. Threats to reproductive healthcare are reaching a crescendo ahead of this year’s presidential election, placing women’s bodies at the heart of the political battleground. Could 2020 be the year that the anti-abortion movement finally dismantles Roe? 

Roe v. Wade Explained

In 1973, abortion was broadly legal in four U.S. states. It was allowed under limited circumstances in 16 others, and virtually outlawed in the rest. On January 22 of the same year, the Supreme Court halted a Texas statute that banned abortion. The Court ruled that a woman’s right to choose was implicit in the right to privacy as protected by the Constitution. 

Women gained the right to make their own medical decisions, and abortion became more accessible across the country. While progress has undoubtedly been made, this “landmark” decision has been under attack ever since, with some opponents claiming that terminating a pregnancy is tantamount to murder. 

A reversal of Roe would mean decisions regarding access to reproductive healthcare would revert to the states, many of which are already imposing restrictive bans. This would render the situation even more confusing and divisive than it already is, not to mention terrifying for the future of women’s rights.   

What Are the Threats to Roe v. Wade?

Threats have been ongoing for over 40 years, yet Republicans have now made it clear just how serious they are about obstructing a woman’s right to choose. This year, more than 200 members of Congress have already asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 ruling. 

President Trump has been a figurehead for this anti-abortion movement, standing by the promises he made in 2016 to do whatever he could to ensure that Roe is reversed. Since taking the presidency, he has consistently appointed pro-life judges to the federal courts. This has emboldened state legislators to pass increasingly restrictive abortion laws. 

In 2019, five states passed “heartbeat” legislation that prohibits abortion at six to eight weeks, which is barely enough time for a woman to know that she’s pregnant. Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi passed laws that forbid abortion at any time during pregnancy unless it endangers the mother’s life. No exception is made for rape or incest. 

Utah and Arkansas also passed bills banning abortion after 18 weeks, which falls far short of the second-trimester terminations legalized by Roe. These states, and others that have restricted abortion, are now on a direct collision course with the Supreme Court.  

Could Roe v. Wade Really Be Overturned?

In total, 20 states have laws that could render abortion illegal. Many of these are designed to take effect quickly (or automatically in some cases) if Roe is overturned. Restrictive laws are intended to make the issue more and more pressing, causing such an acute countrywide divide that intervention at a national level is required. 

What’s more, a conservative majority has reshaped the Supreme Court since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, therefore making the challenge to Roe a very real possibility. Eventually, the Court will have to face this head-on and if Roe were overturned, says the Guttmacher Institute, up to 140,000 women could be denied access to abortion services

Thousands of pro-life advocates are also taking to the streets across the U.S. as part of March for Life, a protest that cites abortion to be the “most significant human rights abuse of our time.” 

What Has to Happen to Save Roe?

As these threats mount, the pro-choice movement is equally active. A 2018 poll revealed that 70 percent of voters do not want Roe overturned. A further poll held by NPR in 2019 shed light on the complexity of the debate, as the majority of those surveyed stated they want to keep abortion legal, but restricted in various capacities.  

It’s important to note that 13 states still have laws that protect the right to abortion, with some policymakers approving statutes that stand without reliance on Roe. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the state policies enacted to support reproductive health in 2018 far outweighed the number of restrictions. 

While many states are adopting measures to expand or protect sexual and reproductive healthcare, it’s apparent that a review of abortion access is needed to resolve the battle. Work at a state-level, therefore, remains critical right now, meaning whatever happens next is not entirely out of your hands.  

You can vote for pro-choice candidates and donate time or resources to Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups, such as the National Network of Abortion Funds or the Abortion Care Network. You can also use your voice by joining rallies in your area to sway those who remain undecided. The majority of Americans still support abortion access, and the more of us who spread the word that it’s not murder, the more impact the vote in favor of freedom of choice could have.  

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