Looking Toward the Future on the 38th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Saturday January 22, 2011

Anniversaries are a time when observers typically look back and reflect on the past, and the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal — is no different. Google “Roe anniversary” and you’ll find plenty of commentary on the significance of this day, much of it from the leading figures of the pro-choice movement and well-established organizations that have worked ceaselessly to protect the reproductive rights of women.

The most notable voices that speak out annually on this anniversary are from a generation that knows what the world was like before abortion was legal and safe. And that may be Roe’s biggest problem.

The importance of protecting reproductive choice doesn’t seem to matter all that much to the current generation that might actually avail itself of abortion if an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy were to happen to them. They don’t get fired up over talk of restricting abortion or making it illegal, while the majority of the prominent standard bearers of choice are women well past menopause. It’s an odd disconnect that threatens the future of legal abortion.

So on this 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, instead of reexamining the past I’m looking ahead to the future of the pro-choice movement by linking to a remarkable essay written by an Ohio State University student. Originally published by OSU’s The Lantern and picked up by UWire, a website that disseminates the work of notable student writers and journalists, “Roe v. Wade anniversary triggers thoughts about ruling’s fairness, women’s rights” is written by Dorothy Powell, not a women’s studies major or a journalism student but a fourth-year student who’ll be graduating this June with a B.A. in Spanish.

Powell’s essay not only explores the reproductive rights many women take for granted but examines how an ever-increasing lack of access essentially prevents women from obtaining abortions even though the procedure has been legal for 38 years.

I was so struck with the passion of her argument that I contacted her to find out more about who she was, why she’s staunchly pro-choice despite her peers skewing pro-life, and why the issue of access was one of the key points of her essay.

Pro-choice for as long as she can remember, Powell told me, “A lot of young women my age…are, frankly, apathetic about abortion. They would probably take advantage of its legality, but see no reason to embroil themselves in the messy debate regarding it.”

Her own position on the issue is rooted in an upbringing that emphasized self-determination, independence, and female-centric education. Her mother, a pediatrician who was always frank with Powell and her brothers about their bodies and health, encouraged them to think for themselves; her schooling included liberal sex ed programs; she attended a single-sex high school and was active in a club that organized an annual women’s health day with speakers from Planned Parenthood.

Powell cites one unexpected source as opening her eyes to what reproductive choice means: “The first time I ever really saw a depiction of abortion was in [the film] Dirty Dancing, and it’s so easy to see how terrifying that must be, to be scared and have no real options.” Situated at a summer resort in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains in the 1960s, Dirty Dancing features a minor character who nearly dies after obtaining an illegal abortion; she recovers only after the heroine’s father — a doctor not involved in the abortion — provides medical care.

The film made a strong impression on Powell, who was born in 1989 long after abortion was legalized and admits, “I can’t really say what it’s like to live in a time and place with restricted access, and neither can most of my peers. I definitely think that plays into women’s opinions.”

She’s well aware of the generation gap and the fact that even among her pro-choice friends, many are unwilling to label themselves: “Women of my mother’s generation and older, who remember when abortion was illegal, are more willing to fight because they know the consequences.”

So why is she willing to fight when the majority of her peers either stand back and remain silent or vehemently oppose abortion? “I feel so strongly about advocating for women’s rights because I can very easily picture myself in the shoes of a woman with no access to reproductive healthcare….Every time I hear about a woman who can’t access the healthcare she needs, whether it’s reproductive or not, I think how I would feel in that situation.”

She succinctly expresses that feeling in her essay:

I know there are plenty of women who disagree with me. But I find it insulting that some politician in an office thinks he or she knows what’s better for my own body than I do. Laws outlawing abortion do not make sense, and they do not save lives. Abortion is still going to happen, legal or not. Rich women will still fly to Canada or another country with legalized abortions. Poor women will still scrimp and save, just to be mutilated with a coat hanger. Even poorer women will still end up with children they do not want or can’t afford. And women will still die….

Making laws against abortion….tells women that they cannot make decisions about their own bodily autonomy. This January, think about your own right to decide, and think about what you can do to make that right more accessible to others.

And if you were wondering, yes…Powell identifies herself as the “F” word — feminist. She is the future we need to recognize, promote and support.

If we’re to move beyond frantically running in place simply to keep abortion legal, safe and accessible, we need to support every Dorothy Powell that emerges and let her know loud and clear that her voice will be heard, amplified, and lauded.

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