Choice under siege

January 22, 2003|By Sayra Meyerhoff

SINCE ROE vs. Wade, a generation has grown up never having known a time when illegal, degrading and sometimes fatal abortions were common.

But now, on the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision establishing a woman's right to abortion, we have cause for concern. That's true even here in Maryland, where in the 1992 referendum - the Question 6 campaign in which I was a leader - 61 percent of all Marylanders who cast ballots voted for choice.

It will not take a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe to make legal abortion a thing of the past for many women. The process has already begun. Anti-abortion forces have been chipping away at the right since its inception. In fact, since 1995, state legislatures have enacted 335 measures restricting access to abortion and other reproductive health services.

In this year's Maryland General Assembly, new legislators and new committees make passage of new restrictive measures a present and real danger. Numerous bills intended to chip away at this constitutionally protected right are expected.

For example, one expected proposal would require women's health facilities to adhere to licensing requirements so onerous that it would be difficult for those facilities to continue operating. To cite one instance, a South Carolina law requires that doorways and corridors be a certain width, mandates unnecessary lab tests for those obtaining services and states that building temperature must remain within a specified range.

Another proposal, introduced for several years but never passed and expected to be reintroduced this year, would force Maryland women to delay their abortions up to 24 hours after receiving state-mandated information intended to dissuade them from choosing abortion. For many women, these delays can impose real impediments to abortion: They can mean costly travel, complicated and expensive child care arrangements and unnecessary time away from jobs, any of which may amount to an insurmountable obstacle for some women.

And finally, in Maryland, as in other states, not surprisingly it is the women with the least political weight - poor women and teens - for whom the right to choose is most at risk.

Already, in most states, women who rely on government-sponsored programs such as Medicaid to pay for their health care find that most abortions - even in instances of cancer or diabetes or when their pregnancies otherwise threaten their health - are not covered by the state. In contrast, Maryland has been covering these lifesaving procedures for the poorest women.

While Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he would not change existing law, he also has said that he would not oppose a move by the Assembly to do so.

Teen-agers do not fare better. Most states already enforce laws that deny teens access to legal abortions unless they enlist a parent or go to court. Most teens voluntarily involve parents, but those who don't often have good reasons not to. They have seen their sisters kicked out of the house because of a pregnancy. They have been abused or threatened. Or they fear adding stress to a family already struggling with illness, addiction or other problems.

Until now, Maryland law has provided for a "physician bypass," meaning that doctors, in consultation with their patients, can grant permission to perform an abortion. Anti-choice legislators have targeted this provision and would, by law, require young women to go through the court system.

This alternative of going to court is daunting and, for many, impossible. Even assuming the teen can navigate the court process, tell intimate details of her life to a stranger and obtain permission for an abortion, the delay will have increased the risks associated with the procedure or made it too late to have the abortion at all.

We cannot let opponents of choice undermine women's autonomy and equality. We cannot let them succeed in blocking access to abortion for all but the most privileged, taking us back full circle to the pre-Roe days when the lack of access to legal, safe abortions devastated the lives of too many women and families.

After winning such a decisive victory in Maryland's 1992 abortion referendum, we thought our work was done. Unfortunately, we must now recommit ourselves to preserving the rights and saving the health and lives of all women by mobilizing against restrictions that leave many women without cause for celebration on this 30th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.

Sayra Meyerhoff was a Steering Committee member of Maryland's 1992 Question 6 referendum campaign to establish a state statutory right to an abortion.

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