Marching Orders: Keeping Abortion Safe, Legal, and Nobody Else’s Business But Your Own

Document Date: January 22, 2004

By Louise Melling
Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Imagine living in a country where government policies and mandates decide if and when you can have children. Now imagine that country as your own.

“It can’t happen here,” you protest. “It’s nobody’s business and certainly not the government’s what I do in my bedroom.”

United States, this imaginary scenario is already reality. If lawmakers have their way, more and more women will be thwarted in their efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to obtain an abortion if and when they need one.

This year, we will have the unique opportunity to stand up and collectively say: Women’s health and lives will not be collateral damage in the ever-escalating political assault on reproductive rights. On April 25th, thousands upon thousands of organizations and individuals, including the ACLU, will participate in the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. We will be demanding that the government stay out of our private lives at the largest demonstration for reproductive rights in this country’s history.

Thirty-one years ago this week the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that a woman’s ability to choose abortion was fundamental. Without access to abortion and other essential reproductive health services, women cannot fully participate in the workforce or in the political arena, or make responsible choices for themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, there are many who would like to take our rights away.

We at the ACLU regularly hear about women who desperately need abortions but must overcome enormous government-imposed obstacles to get basic care.

  • We recently received a call from a counselor: “I just spoke with a woman who needs help raising money for an abortion. She has two children and no job. Medicaid will only pay for her medical care if she carries to term. She has no TV to sell, so she’s been selling her children’s toys. Do you know anyone who can help,” she asked. The woman needed $75.
  • We received another call about a seventeen-year-old in a state that has a law requiring teens to either get the consent of a parent, or ask a judge to waive that requirement before getting an abortion. In court, the teen testified that her mother had abandoned her as a child. She had no contact with her father. She lived with her grandmother, who had told her she would throw her out of the house if she became pregnant as she had her own daughter years earlier. The teen’s godmother verified her story. Nevertheless, the court denied her request for a waiver.

These stories reflect the legal reality of reproductive rights in this country, a reality that is only getting worse.

Opponents of reproductive freedom are committed to extending the government’s reach into the private reproductive lives of Americans. In the current political climate, if we do nothing to stop them, they might just succeed.

Last year, for the first time, the federal government enacted a measure, the so-called “partial-birth abortion” ban, aimed at severely curtailing women’s ability to obtain abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy. This deceptively named ban leaves doctors at risk of criminal prosecution every time they perform an array of safe and common abortion procedures, including the one used in more than 90 percent of abortions in the second trimester.

Because of legal challenges brought by the ACLU and others, the courts have blocked enforcement of this ban while the cases proceed. For now, at least, women seeking second trimester abortions — because of health conditions, because their fetus suffers from a grave condition, or because of delays imposed by unreasonable laws and regulations — can still obtain them knowing that their doctors can treat them according to their best medical judgment.

Whatever the outcome of the legal challenges, proponents of the federal ban are poised to set up greater roadblocks for women in need of basic reproductive health care, making not only abortion out of reach, but severely limiting women’s access to family planning services and increasing spending on unproven and reckless sexuality education programs.

On this 31st anniversary of gaining the right to abortion, we must recommit ourselves to protecting women’s lives and rights by committing ourselves to marching in April. The right to make decisions about one's private reproductive life, free from government intrusion, is the foundation of liberty.

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