ACLU History: The Fight for Reproductive Freedom Continues

Document Date: September 1, 2010

The first decade of the 21st century saw a continuation of the battle over reproductive freedom, and renewed attempts by anti-abortion opponents to limit access to reproductive health services. In addition to legislative fights, 2009 also saw the murder of a respected abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, by an anti-abortion zealot. He is one of eight abortion providers and other clinic staff murdered by anti-abortion activists. Acting on behalf of the National Abortion Federation, the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the trial of Dr. Tiller’s murderer, arguing that sincere political beliefs do not justify murder and therefore do not lessen culpability in such a heinous crime. The court agreed and did not present the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter to the jury; the jury convicted Dr. Tiller’s killer of first degree murder.

Earlier in the decade, the ACLU was also involved in legal battles over the first-ever federal ban on abortion methods. Notably, the ban fails to include an exception to protect women’s health. (Three legal challenges were brought against the ban, called the ‘Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.’ The ACLU’s challenge, National Abortion Federation v. Gonzales, remained on hold in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the other two cases.) In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the federal ban, undermining a core principle of Roe v. Wade: that women’s health must remain paramount. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy evoked antiquated notions of women’s place in society and called into question their decision-making ability. Furthermore, Justice Kennedy held that in the face of ‘medical uncertainty’ lawmakers could overrule a doctor’s medical judgment and that the ‘State’s interest in promoting respect for human life at all stages in the pregnancy’ could outweigh a woman’s interest in protecting her health.

In an impassioned dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attacked the majority for placing women’s health in danger and for undermining women’s struggle for equality. With this decision, she lamented, ‘[T]he Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.’

While this legal turn sets a dangerous precedent and invites politicians to pass new and far-reaching abortion restrictions regardless of women’s health, advocates for reproductive freedom celebrated other important victories later in the decade. In 2004, the ACLU co-sponsored the largest march in U.S. history for women’s reproductive freedom at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. And in 2006 and 2008, the ACLU played a pivotal role in helping to defeat proposed abortion bans in South Dakota that would have criminalized abortion in virtually every circumstance. These were hard-won electoral fights, where abortion rights supporters took to the streets of small towns throughout South Dakota to garner decisive public support for protecting women’s personal private decisions about their reproductive health and families.

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» Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Gonzales v. Carhart
» Frequently Asked Questions: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Federal Ban on Abortion Methods
» ACLU – March for Women’s Lives

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