In the days leading up to the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize abortion, we are featuring a variety of guest posts from APHA members and reproductive health advocates who have reflected on the impact the landmark case has had on public health. Today’s piece was submitted to us by Lois Uttley, MPP, an APHA member, Immediate Past President of the Public Health Association of NYC and co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices.

Lois Uttley at a recent Public Health Association of New York City event.

Commemorations of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this year will, understandably, focus on the legal issues decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and the ensuing political battles over abortion that have continued to this day. But for the public health community, this anniversary is an opportunity to remember the compelling medical evidence of the need for safe, legal abortions that was assembled by pioneering public health practitioners like the late Dr. Jean Pakter of New York City.

As Director of the Bureau of Family Planning and Maternity Services at the New York City Department of Health,  Pakter conducted research on the number of women injured or killed by illegal abortion practitioners in the city during the 1960s, and worked to support passage of New York’s law legalizing abortion in 1970. An appreciation of her work published in The Lancet last year reflected that “The woman whose evidence helped to demonstrate the need for change was a public health doctor who took the pragmatic view that if abortion was to happen, it should be in a proper medical facility, not a back street.”

When women began flocking to New York for pregnancy terminations after the state’s abortion law went into effect on July 1, 1970,  Pakter was instrumental in establishing rules for the safe provision of abortions, and for monitoring by local authorities. Mortality rates dropped dramatically as Pakter and colleagues documented in the Center for Disease Control’s July 18, 1971, Morbidity and Mortality report. This evidence was cited by Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, as one of the rationales for legalizing abortion care.

Forty years later, legalized abortion care in the United States is widely recognized as an extremely safe health procedure, while unsafe, illegal abortions continue to kill an estimated 70,000 women each year and have serious health consequences for an estimated 8 million women in developing countries around the world, according to The Guttmacher Institute. However, access to safe abortion services in our country is endangered by political forces whose ultimate goal is to overturn Roe v. Wade. Private insurance coverage for abortion has been outlawed in some states and Medicaid coverage is limited by Hyde Amendment rules. Many hospitals and physician practices no longer provide abortion care, and some of the clinics that do provide these services have been threatened with loss of public funding for family planning services.

Pakter died seven months short of the Roe v. Wade 40th anniversary, in June of 2012, at the age of 101. Her public health legacy, including medical evidence supporting legalized abortion, will be recognized this year in the presentation of a new Jean Pakter Award by the Public Health Association of New York City. Her work will also be remembered by APHA’s Maternal and Child Health Section, in which she was active. We, the public health practitioners of today, must carry on her work — presenting the sound, public health evidence for widely available and affordable abortion services, and opposing attempts to deny this vital health care to the most vulnerable women among us.