Protect reproductive rights - or lose them

January 22, 2002|By Nancy C. Lineman

THIS WEEK - whether they know it or not - the pro-choice women of America are celebrating the 29th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court case that granted women the right to choose safe, legal abortion.

They celebrate their freedom, their right to make personal decisions without governmental interference and their ability to control their own lives.

We celebrate because we no longer have to take our friends - or go by ourselves - to back alleys to access reproductive health care services. At least for the time being.

Before Roe, more than a million women accessed illegal abortion, often taking matters into their own hands and dying because of it.

Coat hangers and knitting needles were popular tools used to self-abort.

As many as 5,000 American women died each year because of illegal abortion.

For more details, we need only access the memories of women in our lives who were coming of age before 1973. They have stories to tell. Stories that are heart-wrenching and horrifying.

We must never go back to the time when the government decided what was best for women's health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, after the landmark Supreme Court decision, the number of deaths from abortion declined more than fivefold.

And clearly - legal or not - women are going to access abortion. The question becomes: Do we want abortion to be safe and legal, or do we want American women facing unintended pregnancies to die of botched illegal abortions? Who decides? Women or politicians?

In 1999, the Maryland General Assembly narrowly defeated (by a mere three votes) a bill that could have banned all abortions in the state. Last year, five anti-abortion bills were introduced and debated - bills that would have had a detrimental effect on women's choices. This year we expect similar initiatives.

On the national level, Congress is striking directly at the heart of Roe and stepping up its attacks with the support of an anti-abortion president.

Most frightening is when I travel the state and visit college campuses. I'm often met with the same ill-informed statements. "We have Roe vs. Wade - abortion is legal. This issue has been decided. We won't lose our rights," say the college students.

Wrong.

In its most recent decision on abortion, the Supreme Court narrowly affirmed a woman's right to choose by a vote of 5-4. Retirements on the court are expected, and with President Bush nominating justices, we are in for large-scale fights in the very near future on these and other issues about which Marylanders care.

But too often, we don't tell our politicians how to vote on the issue. Although the vast majority of Americans identify themselves as pro-choice they are not as vocal as the anti-abortion opposition. A number of legislators claiming to be pro-choice voted in favor of the abortion ban bill in 1999. Even our friends are having a hard time standing with us.

The 2002 elections are less than 10 months away, and all 188 members of the General Assembly are up for re-election. Don't blindly vote on Election Day without asking, what does this candidate think about the right to choose? Knowing this and voting accordingly will ensure Roe vs. Wade has many more anniversaries.

The right to choose is a fundamental American value. Take it for granted and it will too easily slip away, to the detriment of women's health and lives.

Nancy C. Lineman is the executive director of Maryland NARAL - the state affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, based in Silver Spring.

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