In a fairer world, it would be the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade

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If the Supreme Court had not overturned it last June, overturning a long-standing precedent and doing untold damage to the well-being and dignity of women, Sunday, January 22 would have marked the fiftieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

In those 50 years, Roe radically changed the lives of Americans. Abortion became a routine part of life, a resource around which people planned their lives. Contrary to the political controversy, abortion in the Roe era was—as it is now—aggressively commonplace. About one in four American women will have an abortion at some point in their reproductive lives.

This figure lends credence to the pro-choice claim that everyone loves someone who has had an abortion – and the accompanying joke that if you think you don’t know a woman who has had an abortion, you simply don’t know any woman who has had an abortion. trust you enough to tell you. But part of Roe’s legacy is not only that those women you know and love were able to lead freer, healthier and more voluntary lives, but also that their abortions for many of them are not worth confessing. For most, abortions were not whispered tragedies or life-changing moments of shame, but clichés, choices to which they had an undisputed right and from which they could walk away without conflict. But Roe is gone. Now, for many women, these choices are crimes.

It is worth reflecting on what we have experienced during these 49 years. As she stood, Roe made a promise: that women’s lives need not be limited by so-called “biological destiny”; that gender – its relationships, performances and responsibilities – may not be something imposed on women, but something they take up and reject on their own terms. In the era of Roe, this sincere empowerment of women to decide the course of their own lives was the greatest legacy of that decision. The distinction and determination of individual women, their conflicts and confusions, ambivalence and exploration: once, before Roe, these parts of the female personality hardly mattered; they were random oddities on the inevitable road to motherhood. Roe made women’s lives more dependent on their characters, not just their bodies.

It’s easy to talk about Roe’s influence in material terms – how she enabled women’s long march to wage and higher-paying jobs, how she was the prerequisite for their explosive educational and professional achievements, their rise to positions of power and influence. So little of the rich and diverse lives of twentieth-century American women could have been achieved without abortion and contraception – these women, their minds, and their careers are gifts that the nation would never receive if they were forced to become pregnant against their will or forced to care over unplanned, unexpected children.

But it’s harder to argue about the sense of dignity Roe gave Americans, the way the freedom to control when and if they had children gave American women for the first time a kind of adult authority. Roe opened the door for women to dignity, to self-determination, to the still wild and inciting idea that, like men, they could be endowed with the prerogatives of citizenship and the right to determine the course of their own lives.

At least that was the aspiration Roe stood for: women’s freedom, their independence, their acceptance as equals in the American project. Of course, it never worked that way: the Hyde Amendment, which outlawed Medicaid funding of abortion, was passed just three years after Roe, in 1976, and effectively excluded poor women from Roe’s promise. Black women faced two barriers: moral judgment and the legacy of eugenicists – for them, often neither the choice of abortion nor the choice of parenthood was completely free. Members of the anti-choice movement, backed by a judiciary that became increasingly willing to do their bidding, were inventive and sadistically persistent in restricting access to abortion, making it more expensive, more burdensome, and more stigmatized than other types of medical care.

Even in the decidedly liberal states, where support for abortion was high and restrictions were few, entering the clinic still felt like you had done something illegal – the protesters’ glove was outside and the receptionists sat behind bulletproof glass. If Roe was going to make women equal, why were women so unequal when they tried to access his protection?

Perhaps part of the answer is that Roe’s writers never intended the decision to have the symbolic value it had. Judge Harry Blackmun’s 1973 Opinion famously treated the legality of abortion as a matter of doctors’ rights, reasoning derived from his own respect for medical professionalism and legal theory, en vogue at the time, which found privacy protections in the 14th Amendment. Like many of his successors on the bench, Blackmun made a pretension of medical and moral expertise when confronted with abortion cases that he did not actually possess. In his reasoning, women’s claims to freedom and equality were largely absent. For the court, women’s self-determination was largely an afterthought for decades.

It was the women’s movement – feminists and pro-choice activists – that turned Roe into a symbol of women’s striving for equality; it was the abortion patients, hundreds of thousands of them, who embodied Roe’s promise as they lived the lives of their own choosing.

It was this symbol that attacked the anti-suffrage movement, and these aspirations were suppressed by the Supreme Court in its ruling overruling Roe. For 49 years, Roe respected American women; it outlawed the ban on abortion, one of the most flagrant attempts to dominate us by force, and gave us the trust and respect for physical freedom. As long as it lasted, the right to abortion was a promise: that the state would not take over our insides, would not be able to turn our own bodies against us to thwart our desires. That’s what the court ordered when they knocked down Roe. One day, self-determination, freedom and autonomy became the constitutional right of women. The next day, women were downsized – in terms of status, citizenship and security.

We still haven’t seen the full extent of what Roe’s takedown will take from us. We have not yet seen a decline in the number of women in public life; we still haven’t grasped the human cost of lost dreams, tarnished health, lost curiosity. Perhaps part of the inability to grieve has to do with how much we took for granted in the Roe era. As a nation, we’ve gotten so used to women’s reproductive freedom that we didn’t realize the extent of what it had given us. We will miss him now that he is gone.

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