We continue our series of reflections from reproductive health advocates on how the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case has impacted public health with a contribution from Tracy A. Weitz, PhD, MPA, an APHA member, Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and Director of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health.
Deciding if and when to parent is one of the most significant decisions we get to make. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the importance of childbearing decisions when it issued the Roe v. Wade decision finding a constitutionally protected right to abortion. On Jan. 22, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. As I reflect on four decades of legality, I think about how much we have learned about abortion. But those lessons have come from women and not from the courts.
First, women don’t have an abortion because it is a constitutional right. They have an abortion because it is not the right time to parent, because their life circumstances necessitate it or because they want to pursue other passions. Second, women make these decisions with the involvement of their families, their friends, their communities, the men in their lives and sometimes just by themselves. They don’t look to the law, or even doctors, to tell them what decisions are right for them. Third, women need more than legal protection for their right to abortion. They need access to care. They need clinics in their communities, insurance coverage for the procedure and emotional support for their decisions. Unfortunately Roe did not guarantee these things for women. Rather, since Roe v. Wade many women have had to rely on advocates, activists, health care providers and philanthropists to obtain the care they need.
Roe v. Wade was a very important legal decision. Making it legal made it safe. It is responsible for millions of women making a decision about their futures without fear that they are breaking the law. But Roe was just the beginning; it reflects the floor for what women need to manage their lives, it is not the ceiling. Forty years after the decision, it is time to ask for the next iteration of what women need. It is time for greater demedicalization, both in how abortions are provided and in how they are legally protected. It is time to recognize that an abortion is a decision a woman makes, not one between a “woman and her doctor.” And it is time for destigmatization. It is time for women to demand that society, that means all of us, respect their decisions and provide the social, emotional and economic resources they need to decide whether and when to become a parent.
Weitz is the lead author of a study published this week in the March 2013 issue American Journal of Public Health. For up-to-date news coverage and policy resources on women’s health issues, subscribe to the National Partnership for Women & Familes’ Daily Report.