Roe v. Wade 30 Years Later: A Right Curtailed

Document Date: January 21, 2003

A Special Statement from Louise Melling,
Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

Louise Melling, Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

As we mark the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision establishing a woman’s right to abortion, we have cause for celebration: Girls grow up never having known a time when illegal, degrading, and sometimes fatal abortions were common. But we also have cause for concern: As the right to abortion turns 30, for more and more women, legal abortions are increasingly out of reach, and the gap between those who can exercise their right to choose and those who cannot is widening. In short, reproductive freedom is in trouble.

It will not take a decision by the United States Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade to make legal abortion a thing of the past for many women. The process has already begun. Anti-choice forces have been chipping away at the right to abortion from its inception. According to the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, since 1995, states have enacted 335 measures restricting access to abortion and other reproductive health services.

Some of these laws affect all women-rich and poor, teens and adults-who seek abortions in a given state. Women in 18 states, for example, are forced to delay their abortions up to 24 hours after receiving state-mandated information designed to dissuade them from choosing abortion. Given that 87% of counties in the U.S. lack an abortion provider, for many women, especially those living in rural areas where there are far fewer providers, these delays can impose real impediments to care: They can mean costly travel, complicated and expensive childcare arrangements, and unnecessary time away from jobs-any of which may amount to an insurmountable obstacle for some women.

ACLU “Pro choice is…” Poster
(click on the image for a printable PDF version)

Not surprisingly, it is the women with the least political weight-poor women and teens-for whom the right to choose an abortion has been most eroded.

In the majority of states, a woman who relies on government-sponsored programs like Medicaid to pay for her health care will find that most abortions-even those necessary to protect her health-are not covered. Women are denied assistance when they have cancer, diabetes, or when their pregnancies otherwise threaten their health. They are left with little choice but to use money they need for food, rent, or other essentials to pay for a medically necessary abortion or they must risk their health and continue the pregnancy.

Teenagers do not fare any better. More than half of the states enforce laws that deny teens access to legal abortions unless they involve a parent or go to court. Most teens voluntarily involve their parents in their decisions, but those who don’t often have very good reasons for not doing so. They have seen their sisters kicked out of the house because of a pregnancy; they have been abused or threatened; or they fear adding stress to a family already struggling with illness, addiction, or other problems. The alternative of going to court is daunting, and for some, impossible. Even assuming the teen can navigate the court process, tell intimate details of her life to a stranger, and obtain permission for an abortion, her care will have been delayed, increasing the risks associated with the procedure or making it too late to have the abortion at all.

With anti-choice forces currently controlling the White House, both houses of Congress, and many state legislatures, opponents of choice are more determined than ever to undermine women’s autonomy and equality no matter how many lives are damaged. We cannot let them succeed in blocking access to abortion for all but the most privileged, taking us back full circle to the pre-Roe days when the lack of access to legal, safe abortions devastated the lives of too many women and families.

We must recommit ourselves to preserving the rights and saving the health and lives of all women by mobilizing against the mounting set of restrictions that leave many women without cause for celebration on this 30th anniversary.

Related ACLU Fact Sheets:

Public Funding for Abortion

Parental Involvement Laws

Government-Mandated Delays Before Abortion

Biased Counseling Against Abortion

“Partial-Birth Abortion” Bans: Myths and Facts

Mifepristone (RU-486): Myths and Facts

ACLU’s Role in Stopping Clinic Violence

Legislative Documents

On Roe’s 30th Anniversary, Reproductive Freedom Faces Its Most Hostile Climate in Washington in Years

ACLU Publications

Beyond Apocalpyse and Apology: A Moral Defense of Abortion, by Caitlin Borgmann and Catherine Weiss.

The Right to Choose: A Fundamental Liberty, ACLU Position Paper