by Marti J. Sledek
It has been nearly 40 years since the Roe v. Wade decision was announced. Yes, it has been changed over the ensuing decades, with a rapid and disturbing increase in restrictions, some quite literally invasive. Abortion remains the largest and most controversial symbol of a woman’s ability to decide an important part of her own fate. Its use of the implied constitutional right to privacy is the focal point of arguments against its legal viability, despite the same right being applied in other kinds of precedents, such as birth control, consensual sex, marriage equity and right-to-die. (Remember Terry Schiavo? I often wondered if that case would have been handled differently had the patient been a man.)
Personhood for sperm?
Recently we have seen people on the religious right propose elimination of just about anything to do with our reproductive rights, even that eggs and embryos be declared “persons.” (Just like corporations!) And yet those same people have said nothing about condoms or vasectomies. Should we also declare sperm “persons” and consider the legal implications of that? The Equal Rights Amendment, by the way, would protect both genders from that kind of absurdity by requiring equal protection based on gender and by leveling the playing field among the States.
Nobody is anti-life. It isn’t that simple. I, no more than those who are anti-choice — note I do not use the term pro-life — do not know any more than they do when life begins. What I believe is not critical. What is critical is that it is a belief, not a fact. As a lawyer, it is important to me that the laws be based on fact. “Allowing” women to control our own health care and family decisions is not an infringement on your religious freedom; curtailing my rights is an infringement on mine. Freedom “of” also means freedom “from” religion under the U.S. Constitution.
“Choose” to buy a sweater, “decide” to marry
I want to reframe the conversation, the debate, using more powerful words, more indicative of the thorough deliberation opponents believe we don’t engage in, claiming so wrongly that women see abortion as a “convenience”. “Choice” hasn’t worked so far and it doesn’t seem real strong. Like, I choose which dress to wear, or I choose between the tiramisu and creme brulee for dessert. But I decide whether to get married/partnered, whether to have a child, whether to relocate, to go back to school — the big ticket items, the difficult ones that involve the whole me.
As a woman, it is important to me that I be treated as an adult, being permitted by that law to make my own medical decisions. Since it is a medical decision, I have no problem with generally requiring notification of minors’ parents, because, logically, by making a broad exception to laws that require permission for even minor procedures such as tattoos, ear piercing and teeth cleaning, it is we who are tacitly admitting abortion is something different. Yes, I realize there are special cases with good reason to go around the parents. I realize numerous women’s rights activists see this aspect of the debate differently, but our substantive POV is the same.
Learning from the front row
I have another reason, a more personal one, for contemplating this upcoming anniversary: I was the Public and Media Relations Director for Planned Parenthood Chicago in the early 70s, when I was not yet 30 years old. I was the person talking to the Chicago media when the Roe decision was published. I helped put together and deliver the training for our volunteers who did the speaking engagements and staffed the non-medical side of our clinics. I was there when the Chicago facilities expanded from counseling to include birth control and abortion services. I took some of the heat for promoting what the Rev. Jesse Jackson then called “genocide.” I got fired for putting public service announcements in Spanish on Spanish language radio stations, resulting in a personal call from then Cardinal Cody to the Chair of the Board when traffic in those neighborhood offices tripled in 10 days.
I took the Planned Parenthood job not out of a sense of mission, but because it was offered at a time I needed a job. My experiences there were a turning point in my step-by-step journey to becoming what I now call myself: an unrelenting, unrepenting feminist.
I find it hard to believe nearly four decades have gone by. I find it even harder to believe that we are still fighting the same battles for female autonomy and dignity at home even as we tell the rest of the world to treat their women equally. SIGH!
How is this: “MY body, MY brain, MY decision!”
Marti J. Sladek is a “recovering litigator” and avid feminist.
Photo credit: Thinkstock