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40 Years After Roe, Just How Far Have We Come?

I love anniversaries, and not just because there’s usually some sort of cake involved, but because they mark significant and positive milestones in our lives and allow us to reflect proudly on overcoming setbacks and making progress throughout time. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that recognized the right to safe and legal abortion nationwide. Excitingly enough, one of the few things that I like more than anniversaries and cake is being able to exercise my own reproductive freedom. So wouldn’t it have been great to have a big “Happy Birthday, Roe v. Wade!” party with balloons and ice cream and stories happily recounting the wonders and advancements that the last 40 years have brought us? Yeah, not so fast. While women across the country should have spent January 22nd celebrating the 40th anniversary of this landmark decision, our would-be celebration was being rained on by the lingering reminders of hundreds of restrictive laws and stringent policies that have impeded a woman’s ability to access safe and legal abortions since Supreme Court decision was handed down in 1973.

Last Wednesday I had the privilege of attending a panel discussion at Georgetown Law School, entitled “Reproductive Rights 40 Years after Roe”. The discussion featured four panelists who each represented a different facet of the reproductive rights movement: Jessica González-Rojas from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Helene Krasnoff of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Walter Dellinger, partner with O’Melveny & Myers LLP and former acting U.S. Solicitor General, and Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center.

The panelists reminded us that, while the last 40 years should have brought increased access to safe procedures and comprehensive knowledge of sexual health, we instead see states passing laws that are so stringent they fall just short of banning the procedure all together. From the women in Mississippi, who are in danger of losing their last remaining abortion facility, to women in New Mexico, who face the threat of a new bill which would force rape victims to carry their pregnancies to term, it was a sobering reminder that our right to make private reproductive decisions is threatened across the country. Indeed, we are far from the state of progress our country envisioned at Roe’s decision.

Despite haunting reminders that the right to abortion today has not fulfilled the promise of the decision in ‘73, the panel did not fail to leave us with a few encouraging details: that 40 years after Roe v. Wade, more people now support legal, safe abortion (over 50%) and that 70% of Americans would oppose the overturning of the Supreme Court decision.

It would be silly to suggest that the ‘progress’ (or lack thereof) made in the last 40 years is worth celebrating, but we should certainly not forget that women’s reproductive rights and ability to access safe, legal abortion are still very important to the majority of people in the United States. So while I don’t think I’m quite ready to break out the champagne and funfetti cake in honor of 40 years of progress and improvements, I will continue to take comfort in the fact that most Americans agree that the government should not intrude on our most private of reproductive decisions.

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