Commentary

This could be the last anniversary of Roe – let’s make sure it doesn’t matter

January 22, 2022 12:00 pm

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Protesters march south on High Street, part of a large circuit downtown that changed from the planned route due to the large turnout. More than a thousand people gathered at the Statehouse as part of the nationwide Women’s March focussing on reproductive rights, Saturday, October 2, 2021. Photo by Graham Stokes for OCJ.

Almost 49 years ago today, the constitutional right to abortion became the law of the land. This monumental decision decriminalized essential health care and prevented many people from dying from unsafe, illegal procedures.

Since then, Roe has become fundamental to the health, freedoms, wellbeing, and bodily autonomy of all people of reproductive age in this country. Although this monumental case established the legal right to abortion, it didn’t go far enough. In the 49 years since this constitutional right was established, politicians who are hostile to reproductive freedom — elected, in no small part due to voter suppression laws and gerrymandering — have perpetuated stigmas, spread dangerous misinformation, and steadily enacted restrictions to ensure abortion is legal in name only for many people.

Protecting the legal right to abortion that Roe v. Wade established is crucial — but the legal right to abortion alone isn’t enough. Everyone, no matter their background, zip code, or income level, deserves the freedom and power to make their own decisions about their bodies, their families, and their futures.

As these attacks continue to fill up state legislatures, and especially as the U.S. Supreme Court considers upholding Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, we cannot rely on Roe to save access to this vital health care. Over time, politicians steadily pushed harsher abortion restrictions and policies, while defunding essential community health centers and programs in my home state of Ohio and across the country, putting abortion out of reach for millions of Americans — even with Roe in place. There have been over 1,330 abortion restrictions enacted since Roe with 40% of those restrictions being proposed in the last ten years a record 108 in 2021 alone.

As we prepare for what this country looks like without Roe, we cannot ignore the communities that face considerable health care inequities that give rise to deadly disparities related to pregnancy. Personally, I think back to my grandparents.

My grandmother became pregnant at 14 years old before Roe v. Wade was decided. The stigma of an unwed pregnancy forced my grandparents out of high school and into a teen marriage. After my grandmother gave birth, my grandparents still didn’t have access to crucial resources like sex education or birth control, a common reality for many couples at this time, but especially Black people. Eleven months after having their first child, as children themselves, they were pregnant again. This pregnancy took my grandmother’s life at 16 years old. And still the Black maternal death rate of the 1920s is alarming near the same disproportionate rate of today.

In my role in Ohio, I have witnessed 31 abortion restrictions from forced waiting periods and biased counseling to medically unnecessary provider regulations enacted during the last decade. Although those with means, especially white people of means, could still access care if they needed it, for many Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, in addition to people with disabilities and those having difficulty making ends meet, abortion has already been out of reach.

A recent study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that the rate of pregnancy-related deaths in Texas nearly doubled since 2010-coinciding with stringent funding cuts for women’s health care including the closing of Planned Parenthood health centers. Instead of focusing on the quality of life of Black women, the anti-abortion movement is intent on criminalizing and minimizing the decisions Black people want to make about pregnancy.

And this is only the beginning. We cannot be complacent when 36 million people of reproductive age nationwide could lose the right to life-affirming care.

The Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) can be that solution.

This critical legislation would protect the right to abortion throughout the United States and guard against the medically unnecessary abortion restrictions being pushed forward by state politicians by establishing a statutory right to provide and receive abortion. Supported by a strong majority of voters, this federal law would protect the right to access abortion by creating a nationwide safeguard against bans and medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion.

It’s been nearly four months since the House passed this bill, but it has remained stagnant in the Senate with no indication it will be brought to a vote anytime soon. We must demand action on WHPA. It is a vital step in the right direction to truly protect and advance abortion access in the country.

As I continue to make it clear to Ohio state legislators that attacks on our fundamental freedoms have no place in our state, I urge the U.S. Senate to not let our country lose nearly 50 years of protection for our rights.

If America doesn’t make it to the 50th anniversary of Roe, we must continue to ensure access to essential care regardless of what the Court decides. We have no more time to waste. Lives are at stake.

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Iris E. Harvey
Iris E. Harvey

Iris E. Harvey is the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio (PPGOH) and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio (PPAO). Iris served on the PPGOH Board of Directors since 2011, and was board chair in 2015. Iris brings more than 25 years of organizational leadership in the public and private sectors. She comes to Planned Parenthood from Kent State University where she was the Vice President for University Relations.

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