Roe v. Wade and the Evolving Language of Women’s Empowerment

Roe v. Wade recently turned 40 — and what better time than now to sort through the language we use to communicate about women’s right to safe and legal abortion. I say that with just a dash of sarcasm, but also with a great deal of seriousness.  The past two years of unrelenting assaults on abortion and birth control, in state legislatures and in Congress, might seem to call more for action than navel-gazing about language.  But the words we use really do mean something: They have the power to stir hearts, intrigue minds and inspire action.

“My body!  My life!  My right to decide!” was one of our chants at the candlelight vigil outside the Supreme Court on January 22.  I like that chant because, while it overtly affirms a woman’s right to choose abortion, it goes beyond the concept of choice.  It expresses a fundamental and universal aspiration — the desire to have final say-so over one’s own body, one’s own health, and indeed over the path one walks through life.

Far too often, the choices available to a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy are so few and bleak that it seems cruel to ask her to “choose” between dreadful Option A and really-no-better Option B.  Maybe her partner just lost his job, and although they’d love another child, they can’t afford it. Maybe she is overburdened, caring for her elderly mother and struggling to keep her kids clear of the gang that recently moved into the neighborhood. Maybe she just left a violent husband, and having a baby would give him access to her and the child for the rest of their lives, and that is simply not a future she deserves.  In none of these cases does Roe provide the woman the choice she might want. But it puts the decision in her hands, and that is something no one should be able to take from her.

Many organizations, including the National Organization for Women, have long observed that “choice” doesn’t fully encompass women’s need to control their own reproductive lives.  So these groups began advocating for reproductive rights from a social justice perspective. “Reproductive justice” advocates recognize, as do “pro-choice” advocates, that in order to participate equally in all aspects of society, women must be able to control their reproductive lives.  But reproductive justice advocates also recognize that in order to control their reproductive lives, women must have access to the full range of reproductive health services, including prenatal and postpartum care, screening and treatment for STDs, HIV, breast and cervical cancer, and comprehensive sex education, in addition to birth control and abortion. Blocking women from these services, whether by legal restriction (as with abortion or birth control) or by economic deprivation, is equally wrong, and our efforts must be equally and simultaneously aimed at changing both.

A reproductive justice lens allows us to see that lack of access to these essential services is not random, but experienced disproportionately by specific groups: women of color, immigrant women, Native American women, women with disabilities and young women.  Moreover, legislators’ attempts to restrict abortion have resulted in grievous collateral damage to other reproductive health services, which falls primarily upon those same groups.  For example, in the name of preventing tax dollars from supporting abortion services, right-wing lawmakers have defunded family planning clinics, depriving vulnerable people of all the reproductive health care services they were receiving at those clinics.  Similarly, TRAP laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers) aimed at closing clinics where abortions are performed deprive patients of the prenatal and related care those clinics also provide.

The mention of reproductive justice in a recent Time magazine article shows the concept is moving into mainstream consciousness.  Moreover, new polling suggests that the “pro-choice” label is no longer the only indicator of support for Roe v. Wade.  In fact, although public support for the Roe decision is higher today than it’s been in years, people are increasingly reluctant to call themselves “pro-choice.”  How is that possible?  It’s because more than a third of those who embrace the term “pro-life” do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.

These latest surveys are undoubtedly making the leaders of the right-wing machine squirm.  Suddenly, they are no longer in control of what it means to be pro-life.  They coined the phrase “pro-life” in the first place because it played better than “anti-abortion.” And they have succeeded in attracting growing numbers of people who think of themselves as pro-life.  But now it seems their rhetorical strategy is backfiring, as a strong plurality of pro-life individuals insist on caring about the lives of women.  Who knew?

Pro-choice activists may find these developments confusing as well.  Doesn’t support for Roe, leaving the decision in the woman’s hands, automatically make a person pro-choice?  How can a person be both pro-life (that is, anti-abortion) and pro-choice (that is, supportive of Roe)?  Planned Parenthood offers a pragmatic way out of this semantic conundrum.  Looking at the shifting trends, it concludes simply that attitudes about abortion are complicated and highly personal.  Rather than allowing ourselves to be “boxed in” by the pro-choice versus pro-life label, we should be having conversations about abortion “based on mutual respect and empathy.”

I couldn’t agree more that choosing our words, and the frameworks that lie behind them, is critical to our mission.  Yes, women come from different life experiences, different mindsets, different backgrounds, and different generations — but those differences will prove to be our strength, not our downfall.  For some, the concept of “choice” speaks to us, it motivates us. For others, being “pro-life” includes recognizing the integrity of women whose paths are different from our own.  Increasingly, “reproductive justice” more accurately reflects our calling, our charge. Some will still want to unapologetically talk about “abortion rights.” We should put all of these terms to use when and where they serve us best. After all, how can a movement go wrong by advocating for the ideals of freedom, rights, choice, access and justice?



Terry O’Neill, a feminist attorney, professor and activist for social justice, is President of NOW. She is also president of the NOW Foundation and chair of the NOW Political Action Committees, and serves as the principal spokesperson for all three entities. O’Neill oversees NOW’s multi-issue agenda, which includes: advancing reproductive rights and justice, promoting diversity and ending racism, stopping violence against women, winning lesbian rights, ensuring economic justice, ending sex discrimination and achieving constitutional equality for women. O’Neill’s feminist activism began in the 1990s, fighting right-wing extremists in the Deep South, including David Duke. A former law professor, O’Neill taught at Tulane in New Orleans and at the University of California at Davis, where her courses included feminist legal theory and international women’s rights law, in addition to corporate law and legal ethics. She has testified before committees in the Maryland House of Delegates and has written federal amicus briefs on abortion rights for Louisiana NOW and the Louisiana affiliates of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. O’Neill is a skilled political organizer, having worked on such historic campaigns as Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and the campaign leading to the election of Louisiana’s first woman U.S. senator, Mary Landrieu.  



Photo credit: Kelly Schott via photopin cc.

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