This week, supporters of Roe v Wade marked the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to make reproductive choices. But tragically, while the landmark decision has been the law of the land for four decades, the resolve of those who seek to overturn, weaken and restrict that right seem more tenacious than ever.
Just this last week 18 members of the Washington State Senate introduced SB 5156, a measure that would require a woman under 18 years old to notify her parent or legal guardian before having an abortion. The measure requires that the parent or guardian receive 48 hours notice from the medical professional or agency intending to provide the abortion. Fifteen of the bill’s co-sponsors are Republicans, joined by three Democratic backers from Eastern Washington.
The Washington bill is the latest in persistent attempts to weaken Roe v. Wade. It is ironic that the effort is occurring in a state that early in the 1970s voted approval for a woman’s right to choose, even before the Roe decision.
But, despite past approval here and majority acceptance in opinion polls, abortion opponents continue to attack women’s rights. This most recent assault comes at a time when other states, particularly those with statehouses and governor’s offices dominated by Republicans, are taking ever stronger steps to limit access to reproductive health care and make a mockery of freedom of choice. The incursions into women’s rights range from requiring an invasive pre-abortion ultrasound to mandated counseling and parental approval.
When I read anti-choice rhetoric (mainly from male politicians), I recall the days before Roe. At the time, ending an unwanted pregnancy was punishable by a lengthy jail sentence. The alternative for unmarried women at the time was bearing a child branded illegitimate or giving the child up for placement with strangers.
This reality — a world where providers and women seeking abortions are criminalized — doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the debate over abortion. Instead, we hear platitudes — “sanctity of life,” “moral obligation,” etc. What we don’t hear is how these policies alter people’s lives.
And that is why I am writing this piece. It’s because I have seen up close what criminalizing abortion looks like. Even though it is difficult for me to relive those times – and still harder to write about – I decided to share an incident, best forgotten, that I have seldom revealed. Let this story serve as a reminder of the risks that anti-choice activists would have us face.
In the days before Roe, I briefly held an "elected" office: I was serving as “corridor president” at my freshman dormitory at Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. One corridor-mate – I’ll call her Janet, though that wasn’t her name – often frequented my dorm room, partly out of loneliness and then out of sheer, almost suicidal, desperation.
As she sobbed over the details, I was able to piece together the fact that she had accepted a blind date to a frat house party. She had consumed way too much alcohol and, although she was blurry about particulars, she ended up, in the idiom of the time, “going all the way.”
That was some weeks prior to her outburst and now she had missed a period and feared she might be pregnant. The thought was terrifying. What would become of her? Her parents — good church-going folks from a small town in Wisconsin — would disown her. Her aim to get a teaching degree now seemed impossible. She’d been throwing up in the morning. Was it just nerves or did it mean what she feared?
She’d been thinking that maybe the best solution was to do away with herself. In fact, she’d consumed an entire bottle of aspirin. Thankfully, all that achieved was difficulty waking up and more acute nausea.
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