The Death of Roe

This weekend, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the seminal 1973 Roe v. Wade case, passed away at the age of 69.  McCorvey was never able to exercise the legal right to abortion that her case secured for so many women in this country, instead giving the baby up for adoption.  But that legal right recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court has stood for over four decades, ensuring that women no longer have to resort to back-alley abortions or risk their lives to access abortion.  The case also symbolized that abortion should not just be an option for the wealthiest women who can pay the high price to secure safe abortions.
The legal right to abortion enshrined in Roe has been under attack ever since it became the law of the land. These attacks include foreclosing the right for low-income women—like McCorvey—by restricting use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion, except in the limited circumstances of rape, incest, or life endangerment.  In fact, when he championed his 1977 amendment to bar federal Medicaid funds for abortion, Rep. Henry Hyde proclaimed: “I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody  having an abortion: a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the . . . Medicaid bill.” Since its enactment, this harmful restriction has effectively undermined access to abortion for women enrolled in Medicaid, including a disproportionate number of women of color, forcing many to make untenable choices between paying for necessities like rent and groceries or paying the cost of an abortion.  Following enactment of the Hyde amendment, additional restrictions on federal funding for abortion have been enacted that have limited access to abortion for many women, including women who are in prison or detention centers, women in the military, federal employees and their dependents, Peace Corps volunteers, and women receiving care through the Indian Health Services.
Unfortunately, these restrictions have diminished access to legal abortion for many women, as a mostly white, middle-class “mainstream” Pro-Choice movement centered its focus on abortion in the context of legal privacy and largely overlooked other barriers to access, such as availability of culturally and linguistically competent care, affordable care, transportation to care, and a dark history of exploitation and experimentation on women of color, particularly African-American and Latina women who were routinely sterilized and experimented upon.
The progressive erosion of the legal right to abortion secured in Roe, which for many women has been rendered unattainable, has led to this moment in history in which we are confronted with a President who promised to nominate an individual committed to overturning Roe to the U.S. Supreme Court and assembled a cabinet of anti-reproductive health, anti-women officials, including those who have championed restrictions on access to abortion and who oppose women’s access to free birth control.  Coupled with a conservative Congress with some members who are equally committed to eviscerating women’s rights, the precedent set in Roe is under real threat.   However, if we learn anything from McCorvey’s complicated legacy, it is that we must remain constantly vigilant in order to preserve the legal right to abortion.
These are a few key lessons that we can learn from the legacy of Roe:

  1. We must fight to ensure that the legal right to abortion is meaningful for all women, not just a privileged few: Having a legal right without the means to access it renders it essentially ineffective. That has been the case for decades for many low-income women and women of color who have been unable to exercise the legal right to abortion due to restrictions and barriers like cost or accessibility. That is why we must support legislation like the EACH Woman Act, which would eliminate the Hyde amendment and other restrictions that restricts access to the legal right to abortion for too many women.
  2. We must expose policies, laws, and practices at the state and local levels that seek to deprive women of the legal right to abortion. This past year, in the case of Whole Woman’s Health, the Supreme Court struck down thinly veiled attempts by the state of Texas to place arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on abortion providers to limit women’s access to abortion.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court saw past Texas’ attempt to limit women’s access to abortion and exposed such laws as unconstitutional.  However, at all levels, politicians continue to attempt to interfere with and eliminate women’s access to legal abortion. This is why we need legislation that would bar attempts by states to limit access to abortion.
  3. We must have an inclusive and diverse movement if we are to be effective. In order to effectively combat attacks on women’s access to abortion, we must ensure that the pro-reproductive health, rights and justice movement is an inclusive one. We must contextualize our current struggles within broader social justice movements. This means engaging in fights that might not historically be considered pro-choice fights, such as racial justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, and anti-poverty efforts. Only by recognizing that these fights are inextricably linked—for example, we cannot have reproductive justice without economic justice—can we who believe in legal abortion ensure that all are able to meaningfully exercise their legal rights.

History can teach us a lot if we are willing to listen to its lessons. The complex life and legacy of Norma McCorvey has a lot of teach us all.  For the pro-reproductive health, rights, and justice movement, her death and legacy should be a reminder to remain vigilant, steadfast, and united in our work to preserve and strengthen our hard-fought right to legal abortion.