The 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade is likely to bring as many protests as it brings celebrations. While American culture tends to be liberalizing in its attitudes toward civil rights, those of us in the pro-choice movement find ourselves forced to once again defend positions we thought we’d long ago settled. While the concept of reversing gains and re-instituting a ban on inter-racial marriages, for example, seems utterly absurd, we have seen serious attempts to make contraception more difficult to obtain, to ban abortion outright, or to make abortions de facto illegal, expensive, and professionally risky.
Yet despite the personal, legal, and professional challenges, we can never forget that vacating the rhetorical battleground only strengthens those who seek to ban a woman’s right to choose. Those who seek to end Roe too often resort to violence, threats of violence, and outright lies to advance their position. These threats can cow those who support a woman’s right to choose into silence and secrecy, clearing room for prominent conservatives to openly opine about which rapes should be considered “legitimate” and which ones we shouldn’t be horrified by. While we can take temporary comfort in the defeat of Mississippi’s “personhood amendment” and of such anti-choice blowhards as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, we should also be scared that the margins in Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio weren’t even larger; there’s still much work to be done.
I fully admit that as a future physician I am a biased source. It is patently contrary to medical ethics to force a patient to accept greater physical risk to themselves against their will, and pregnancy is at least 14 times more dangerous than an abortion. Even in cases where another life is at stake—like an innocent child who needs a kidney transplant—the legal structure for forcing a person to submit to medical risk—to forcibly take an organ—simply does not exist. In those so-called compromise positions where exceptions graciously exist in cases of rape and incest, anti-choice advocates presuppose a right to force women to disclose personal details of their sex lives to a body which will then judge them by moral, rather than medical criteria. Nowhere else in medicine, whether in heart disease, COPD, or even sexually transmitted infections, do we ever ask whether a patient is worthy to make their own choices or if they somehow deserve the consequences of their behavior before we grant them medical autonomy.
Abortion can only stay safe, legal, and available as long as we are willing to stand up and defend choice from those who seek to curtail it. Civil rights have moved forward because individuals have met and interacted with those who were affected, and because more people openly defended their rights; pro-choice individuals must come out to their friends and families and stand proud. This year we are celebrating the demise of the back-alley and coat-hanger abortion. Forty years on, our mission is to ensure that we never allow it to go back.