This week marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in all 50 states, but what does the future hold for women’s reproductive health?
While the decision still stands and public opinion continues to support the ruling, restrictions on access to abortion are greater than ever before. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest level of support for this question since 1989.
Abortion rates hit an all-time low in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet in 2011 and 2012 state legislatures passed 135 laws restricting abortion rights, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute.
Leslie J. Reagan, associate professor of history, medicine, gender and women's studies, and law at the University of Illinois and author of When Abortion was a Crime, is quite concerned about the laws that have passed and are being proposed at the state level.
“Roe v. Wade has been and is being essentially overturned in some states because it is virtually impossible to obtain [an abortion],” Reagan said. “It certainly is no longer a decision made by a woman based on her own conscience, in privacy, and decided with a doctor.”
Reagan says that many of these restrictions target young women, poor women, and especially women living in rural areas, making it harder than ever to obtain a safe, legal abortion.
While the results of the November election seemed to indicate support for women’s access to health care, days after the election the Health Committee of the Ohio House of Representatives voted to strip more than a million dollars in federal funding from the state's Planned Parenthood health centers. In December, Michigan governor Rick Snyder signed legislation establishing new, complex licensing requirements for abortion clinics that opponents say could force many of the state's clinics out of business.
“As the nation’s leading women’s health care provider and advocate, Planned Parenthood understands that abortion is a deeply personal and often complex decision for a woman to consider, if and when she needs it,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a public statement. “To protect her health and the health of her family, a woman must have access to safe, legal abortion without interference from politicians, as protected by the Supreme Court for the last 40 years.”
A New Generation of Supporters
In a New York Times editorial, Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress, said that the reproductive justice movement of today involves a younger generation of activists who support access to the full range of reproductive services, including abortion.
The goal of her organization is not only to prevent politicians from obstructing access to care, but also to “provide resources to women, like insurance coverage for abortion even for women who are eligible for Medicaid and other government programs, so that no woman is forced to make such an important decision based on economic need.”
At the college level, Roe v. Wade continues to impact sex education.
“Legislation that comes out to either support or oppose the existence of abortion rights will be ever-evolving and thus will have an impact on how abortion is discussed in educational settings,” said Samantha Evans, MS, CHES, who works for GatorWell Health Promotion Services at the University of Florida. “When a topic is so politically charged and debated, yet also so personal, I find that it is not talked about or discussed as easily in an open forum, such as a lecture, presentation, or larger discussion, but more so in a smaller group or one-on-one setting when there is already established trust and understanding.”
Evans says she is concerned that in states with more restrictive abortion laws, not having abortion as an option for college students could potentially lead to severe consequences.
“Unless women are proactive in educating themselves on what their abortion rights are and keep up on the changes made to them, which happen frequently, I am not sure that the average women is aware of what her rights are on a regular basis,” Evans said.