January 22 commemorated the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in America. This decision, in the Texas case of Roe v. Wade, certainly did not introduce abortion to American women. Throughout America’s history, women have navigated whatever systems were available to them to regulate their fertility. During much of that history, controlling one’s reproductive life and dealing with unplanned pregnancies has meant that many had to resort to illegal and unsafe methods of both birth control and abortion, methods that sometimes cost women their lives. What the Supreme Court decision did on January 22, 1973, was give women access to legal and safe abortion.
Prior to this court decision, American women had to traverse complicated and often dangerous roads if they made the decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (you can read some stories by clicking here). They may have had to travel long distances and several days to get to a state that had legalized abortion; scrounge up money for both travel expenses and the procedure; take their case to a panel of hospital physicians; and in worst case scenarios, turn to illegal practitioners or self-induced abortions.
In 2016, 53% of North Carolina women live in a county with no abortion provider, and have to wait 72 hours before obtaining the procedure. Multiple insurance plans in the state are allowed to deny abortion coverage, leaving many women scrambling to come up with the needed cash for the procedure. With the new requirement of compiling certain ultrasounds at the state DHHS for review by a staff physician, some women are again having their decisions – already made in conjunction with a doctor – scrutinized by a third party. And in places such as Texas, some women have to travel up to 500 miles to access abortion, and some again are turning to illegal or self-induced methods.
From the Hyde Amendment to TRAP laws, numerous federal and state laws restricting abortion have been introduced and passed starting almost as soon as the Roe case was decided. Yet more state laws restricting abortion have been implemented in the last five years than in any other similar time period since Roe. North Carolina is no exception. We have moved from a state that was once reasonably progressive on abortion rights to one that is now among the most hostile and extremist in restricting women’s access to this right.
Forty-three years after this Supreme Court decision, the right to a safe and legal abortion for many women is a right that exists only on paper. Concerted efforts have been made to increase the expense, distance, legal and logistical hurdles, harassment and violence facing woman seeking an abortion. These restrictions are felt most acutely on segments of the population who are already marginalized. Poor women, women of color, immigrant women, young women, rural women, non-gender conforming people and women experiencing abuse are most often left to fend for themselves when it comes to dealing with unplanned pregnancies and optimal reproductive health. These efforts to restrict access are steps backwards towards a time we must not repeat.
With the Supreme Court due to hear another landmark case on abortion rights on March 2, we are optimistic, however, that these rights will be affirmed and strengthened. In 2016, we and the majority of Americans are speaking out on our commitment to supporting women on whatever reproductive choices they decide to make, whether that is to have a child, delay starting a family, use contraception, or terminate a pregnancy. At NC Women United, we work every day to make sure that all women really do have the safety and dignity of a real choice. This includes advocating for policies that have been shown to benefit women and families, such as raising the minimum wage; increasing access to quality child care; expanding Medicaid; increasing access to birth control and comprehensive sex education; reinstating the state Earned Income Tax Credit; requiring anti-discrimination employment policies; and mandating family-friendly policies like paid sick days and family leave.
We believe the decision to either have an abortion or carry a pregnancy to term is not entered into lightly, and we trust women to make whatever decision is best for them at that moment in their lives. Forty-three years on from Roe, we must remain diligent that we don’t once again retreat into the darkness of the back alley.
Tara Romano is the President of N.C. Women United.