Magazine article Women in Action

Thirty-Five Years of Legal Abortion in the U.S.: The Unfinished Agenda

Magazine article Women in Action

Thirty-Five Years of Legal Abortion in the U.S.: The Unfinished Agenda

Article excerpt


January 22, 2008 .was the 35th anniversary of legal abortion in the United States during these years, millions of women bare gotten the abortions they needed, without risk to their lives and health. Yet millions of other "women bare not. Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalising abortion, left a gap between legality, and access which opponents tinned into a chasm filled with legal restrictions, unnecessary and burdensome regulations, continued threats and violent attacks on clinics and service providers. Today, abortion is legal but restricted, stigmatised and continually under attack, with the women who are most vulnerable-poor women, women of color, young women-bearing the brunt and facing the greatest obstacles.

In this article, I discuss the erosion of abortion rights since legalisation, the political strategies of opponents and advocates, and the divisions among abortion rights supporters, in order to demonstrate the need for new vision, strategy, and leadership. I come to these issues with a long activist history. I entered the movement in 1977 when the backlash to Roe v Wade achieved its first big victory in the Hyde Amendment. This legislation prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion, thereby effectively denying the promise of Roe v Wade to poor women. It also crystallised the race and class dynamics within the abortion rights movement. Ignoring the fact that access to abortion, not simply its legality, was the central concern for women of colour and for all poor women, the pro-choice movement failed to make the restoration of public funding for abortion a priority. Instead, it focused on defending Roe v Wade.

Although I am critical of this political approach, as well as other aspects of the pro-choice movement, I am also unwaveringly committed to the importance of fighting for abortion rights as part of a broader struggle for women's ability to control their lives. Our battle in the US is ongoing. We have lost ground on abortion and face new challenges. For example, our opposition has shifted its approach, talking more about protecting women than defending fetuses. Claims that abortion is violence against women, and attempts to establish links between abortion, mental illness and breast cancer are all part of this strategy, which is designed to undercut the claim that the anti-abortion movement does not care about women. The anti-abortion movement continues to be a formidable foe. There are no signs that this will change in the foreseeable future.

In the face of losses and ongoing threats," abortion rights advocates are taking a critical look at their own strategies and politics. I will argue that the reproductive justice approach, currently being promoted by women of colour organisations and their allies, offers the best possibility for restoring what has been lost, meeting new attacks, and gaining the full array of reproductive freedoms we have never had. It is the most dynamic and inclusive vision for moving us forward.

While this article focuses on the US, the policy implications and harm are experienced throughout the world. Antiabortion politics in the US undermines the services and health of millions of people worldwide through actions that include re-imposing the global gag rule, diverting US$34 million from the United Nations Population Fund to abstinence-only programs in the US, and pushing anti-abortion agenda at all international meetings on women's health and rights.

Abortion Access in the US

While Roe v Wade was a tremendous victory for women's health and lives, it was only the first step towards gaining abortion rights for all women. Access remained the unfinished agenda. The attacks began as soon as abortion became legal.

Roe v Wade galvanised the anti-abortion movement. In the year after Roe v Wade, hundreds of bills were proposed to limit abortion. The movement received a major boost in the 1980s when the presidency of Ronald Reagan moved the Conservative Right, previously on the margins of US politics, to a position of power. …

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