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Roe v. Wade: A Sensible Balance

Roe v. Wade: A Sensible Balance
Gloria Feldt
January 21, 2005

Planned Parenthood's Feldt celebrates the legacy of Roe v. Wade. This landmark legislation is under attack by the Bush administration, and the next four years will be critical. Feldt also cautions that the battle to protect women's reproductive freedom isn't only about the Supreme Court.

Gloria Feldt is president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

This January 22, we mark 32 years since Roe v. Wade guaranteed the legal right to abortion nationwide. With this decision, the U.S. Supreme Court established a woman's fundamental right to make her own childbearing decisions—free of governmental intrusion.

The rights Roe v. Wade granted are bedrock rights. We've come to recognize them as basic human rights, essential to women's equality. A majority of Americans are pro-choice. As we celebrate the anniversary of Roe , we also celebrate the fact that an entire generation of women has reached adulthood able to choose their own reproductive futures without risking jail, humiliation and death. We celebrate the freedom that has allowed women to fulfill increasingly diverse educational, social, political and professional dreams.

Yet over the past three decades, anti-choice extremists have succeeded in chipping away at the foundations of Roe , imposing restrictions that limit women's access to necessary reproductive health care. Rights without access are meaningless—which is precisely their point.

And now, in the U.S. Supreme Court, one vote is all that stands between our cherished reproductive rights and the end of Roe v. Wade as we know it.

A central tenet of Roe holds that a woman's life comes first; no restrictions to abortion may be imposed that endanger women's lives or health. But this crucial safeguard is currently supported by the slenderest of margins: one vote. It's all but inevitable that the composition of the court will change sometime in the coming four years; replacing even one justice may tip the balance. The future of Roe —and of our reproductive rights—lies on a razor's edge.

As Supreme Court appointments are for life, what happens in the next four years may determine the how we live our lives for the next 40 years.

If Roe crumbles, it's not only our right to legal abortion that's at stake. Along with Supreme Court decisions establishing the right to birth control, Roe helped define the contours of the constitutional right to privacy, protecting us from unwarranted governmental interference in our private affairs. A world without Roe may signal the beginning of an era of intolerable intrusion into all our other reproductive choices—such as the decision to use birth control—and into our personal lives.

Would any of us want to live in a world where something as personal as our right to decide whether or not to have a child is subject to governmental review?

A strong majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade. President George W. Bush has a responsibility to us, and to future generations, to nominate only those justices that will uphold the Constitution by affirming our basic human and civil right to make our own childbearing choices. But it's doubtful he will do so.

On the campaign trail in 2000, Bush pledged to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—the justices most adamantly opposed to a woman's right to choose abortion—if he had a chance to fill a vacancy.

If his appointments to the federal courts are any indication, it is likely Bush will try to keep this promise in his second term. His nominees have included rabidly anti-choice judges like James Leon Holmes, Charles Pickering, and William Pryor—right-wing extremists whose views have demonstrated a lack of even the most basic compassion for women's lives.

Roe v. Wade is a compromise, a moderate and sensible balance that carefully considers the religious, ethical, scientific, medical, legal and social aspects of reproductive freedom. Just as the replacement of one Supreme Court justice could topple this balance, the appointment of a pro-choice justice could put our reproductive rights on firmer ground.

But it's time to weave a new and stronger cloth that will explicitly secure the right to make childbearing choices. We won reproductive freedom from the top down the first time. This time, we must work from the bottom up—taking the struggle to the local level, working to make sure state legislatures and governors block anti-choice laws from ever getting to the courts in the first place.

Most important, we must introduce and pass proactive legislation, such as the proposed federal Freedom of Choice Act, to codify our reproductive rights. Laws that will establish—simply but clearly—that no government can deny a woman's right to choose whether or not to use birth control, whether or not to become pregnant and whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.

This may be the hardest political battle we'll ever fight. But it will be, by far, the most important.

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