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Event report - Roe 2.0: Strategies for the next generation of reproductive rights activism

January 18, 2013

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the monumental Roe v. Wade decision, which extended the right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to include a woman’s decision to have an abortion.  On January 16th, just six days shy of the anniversry, the Center for American Progress hosted a panel discussion on strategies that activists may use to secure the promise of Roe for the future.  The panel featured four speakers: Jessica Arons, the Director of the Women’s Health & Rights program at the Center for American Progress; Kimberly Inez McGuire, the Associate Director of International Relations and Public Affairs for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; Heather Holdridge, the Director of Digital Strategy for Planned Parenthood; and Lynn Paltrow, the Executive Director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.  The debate was moderated by Heidi Williamson, the Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health & Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.

The panel first addressed what Roe means for women today. Speakers were quick to point out that the erosion of the Roe’s protections began almost immediately after the decision was passed, and that activists today are not only fighting to advance reproductive rights, but also to maintain those that are already technically guaranteed.  There have been several court cases, such as Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 (which challenged the constitutionality of Pennsylvania state regulations regarding abortion) that have damaged the rights stemming from Roe.  However, Heather Holdridge noted that the reproductive rights movement is growing, particularly among the younger population.  The Planned Parenthood supporters list has grown by 2.1 million in the past year alone and one-third of these new supporters are under the age of 35.  Still, the panel contended that the Constitution does not currently consider women to be “full persons,” and questioned when that time will come.

Next, the panel addressed how people, particularly youth and those of color, are fighting to maintain the rights of Roe, and what kind of movements are presently on the ground.  Speakers focused on legislation in states such as Idaho and Virginia that would require any woman getting an abortion to receive an ultrasound, with no exception for cases of rape, incest, or pregnancy complications.  Protests in Idaho, which led to the bill’s failure, are particularly noteworthy since Idaho is traditionally considered a red state.  In Virginia, a bill requiring transvaginal ultrasounds was abandoned by legislators after public outcry, but Governor McDonnell did sign into law a mandatory ultrasound procedure prior to an abortion, except in cases of rape or incest.  A subsequent petition opposing this law accrued 30,000 signatures.  Kimberly Inez McGuire also emphasized the increasing political power of women of color.  For example, in the 2012 presidential election, people of color had a greater influence than ever over the outcome of the election.  In fact, President-elect Obama lost the vote among white women.  McGuire additionally cited an exit poll showing that 66% of Latina voters support the legal right to abortion.  

The moderator then asked the lawyers on the panel how they would argue for Roe today.  Lynn Paltrow explained that aside from all of the legal jargon and proceedings, ultimately, courts and policy makers must be pressured to respond to the following question: “Is there a point during a pregnancy when you think women should lose their civil rights?”  This comment received an enthusiastic round of applause.

A particularly interesting section of the discussion focused on the benefit of moving away from “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels.  Holdridge stated that 51% of respondents to a Planned Parenthood survey identified as pro-life, yet 77% of them also believed that abortion should be safe and legal.  The panel cautioned that identification as pro-choice or pro-life can immediately cut off many individuals from important policy conversations.  Additionally, they discussed how “pro-life” is an ambiguous term since individuals on both sides of the spectrum would likely agree that they value the lives of the unborn child, the mother, and the members of the family.  While it is politically convenient to divide women into two groups – those who have abortions and those who have babies – the panel argued that they are actually the same woman, but at different states in their lives.

Lastly, the panel was asked to reflect on what moving beyond Roe looks like and what we will be celebrating in 40 years, on the 80th anniversary of the decision.  Speakers unequivocally wished to see the restrictions on Roe lifted, and every woman granted affordable access to healthcare.  In addition to the right do decide whether or not to have an abortion, activists are fighting for increased respect for bodily integrity in relation to prenatal care and birthing options.  For example, under certain personhood laws, mothers who miscarry or give birth to stillborns due to natural complications face the possibility of being charged with homicide due to imperfect prenatal care.  The panel also stressed that the rights of privacy and sexual equality should be enshrined in law, rather than left to the courts to protect.  Moving forward, speakers emphasized the need for creative legal strategies, perhaps exploring different areas of the Constitution, as well as fostering discussion with activists and policy makers in red states.  In conclusion, the panel agreed that although the fight for justice is a lifetime struggle, we will hopefully have much to celebrate in 40 years time.

Video of the event is available here.


Kayla McAlindin
The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

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