The 40 Years War: Decades After Roe v. Wade, Abortion is Still a Battleground

Anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators argue in front of the Supreme Court during the March for Life January 24, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators argue in front of the Supreme Court during the March for Life January 24, 2011 in Washington, DC.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. That’s a long time—back when contraception meant counting days and pregnant teenage girls were forced to give birth, 40 years was more than two generations.

Forty years means that an issue our grandmothers thought they’d resolved remains on the front burner of American politics, not just unsettled but consistently under attack.

For two generations, women’s politics in America has been defined and limited by this single, Neanderthaloid issue that has absolutely no place in the political discourse of a modern, post-industrial, civilized nation. The threat of illegalizing abortion (and restricting access to and means of birth control) eclipses every other issue of great importance to women—equal pay, gender parity in politics and boardrooms, issues of workplace fairness, employee flextime and affordable child care.

This anniversary is not something to celebrate. It’s time to ask where we went wrong, and how can we put this issue behind us forever. The difficult truth is, the war on abortion benefits Democrats politically, and drums up millions for pro-choice organizations. What’s less clear is whether the Democrats or pro-choice groups have a plan to defend abortion rights on the state level, where they’re under fiercest assault.

According to a Planned Parenthood report, we have just emerged from the two worst years on record for state legislation against women’s reproductive health care. A thousand pieces of anti-choice legislation were introduced after the tea party swept the 2010 elections. Between 2011 and 2012, 136 of them passed. Just to name a few:

• In Mississippi, the state’s last abortion clinic will probably be shuttered because of a new law requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges, which hospitals are afraid to grant in the rabidly anti-abortion state. And the state just carried out an unannounced inspection.

• Attacking the licensing of ambulatory clinics, Virginia’s Board of Health voted to require all clinics in the state to comply with strict new building codes. The rules mean that many clinics would need expensive upgrades or could be forced to close entirely.

• North Dakota, a state with such a shortage of females that oil roughnecks pay women $3,000 to strip and serve beer in their houses, is expected to outlaw abortion again.

• In 2011, the Texas legislature defunded family planning by $73 million, meaning that 63 clinics closed, throwing 160,000 Texas women out on the street as far as health care goes.

Some 87 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Doctors who do perform these procedures operate in an atmosphere of fear, in which only the most ideologically committed dare to continue. Average gynecologists were scared off long ago. Why on earth would one risk the fate of a Dr. George Tiller, or even contend with restrictive red tape, when one can just deliver babies for a living?

The direct beneficiaries of the right-to-life successes are not embryos and fetuses, but Barack Obama, reinaugurated two days before the Roe anniversary without having to pay women back with a single cabinet seat, and the Democratic Party, which can position itself as pro-woman while doing very little about the other issues we care about.

Also coming out on top are pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood, which had a banner year in 2012, pulling in $400,000 in 24 hours after the Susan G. Komen defunding episode in February. Legions of new supporters were identified as the War on Women raged in 2012.

So what’s the plan? I called Planned Parenthood and asked a staff member in Washington whether the group had a coordinated response to the state-level assaults so clearly being organized on the national level by the other side.

What I found was discouraging. Planned Parenthood has representatives in all 50 state capitols, and I applaud them, especially the brave men and women buttonholing jackasses in Baton Rouge. But their primary focus is not on politics, or lobbying, or identifying pro-choice candidates, or marshaling citizen voices to persuade politicians that they will pay for supporting extremist anti-female legislation. (With 70 percent of the population identifying as pro-choice, they can’t be that hard to find.) Without those tools, the pro-choice forces have been and continue to be defensive, not proactive.

The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) has affiliate staff in 20 states and tracks anti-choice legislation. But, according to spokeswoman Samantha Gordon, there is no national campaign to head off attacks at the state level, apparently because they are not always predictable. “Anti-choice politicians do not campaign on choice-related issues,” Gordon said. “However, once they assume office, many of them push extreme anti-choice legislation that is out of touch with our country’s values and priorities.”

If the War on Women is going to mean anything more than an election-year slogan, the pro-choice organizations and the Democrats must leverage their new supporters and bushels of cash to stand up to the extremist agenda.

They need a state-by-state plan to organize and shut down extremists on the local level, where they are doing their dirty work, in cities like Jackson, Tallahassee, Richmond and Austin. Only then can we focus our resources and attention on what really matters to women: equal pay, flextime for working parents, equal representation in politics and business, and affordable child care.

Forty years. Time’s up.