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Roe in Rough Waters | The Nation

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Roe in Rough Waters

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Real men and women raised with Roe have complex responses to abortion, as they do with many once black-and-white issues that 1970s feminists tackled three decades ago. Prior to Roe, an estimated 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed each year, according to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. About 10,000 women in the United States died annually from complications from illegal abortions. Roe unquestionably liberated my generation of women to enjoy freer lives than our mothers did. For those of us who never knew a time when abortion wasn't safe and legal, we have the privilege of having complicated feelings about abortion. "I consider myself antiabortion but prochoice," says Mark Andersen, a 43-year-old author and activist in Washington, DC. A devoted Catholic vegan who doesn't even eat honey "for fear of causing problems for the bees," Andersen nonetheless votes for prochoice, Democratic candidates. "I think that the left has the pro-life platform overall, because it is concerned with the most vulnerable. Rick Santorum, for instance, isn't a pro-life candidate as a whole--just when it comes to the preborn."

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

CORRECTION: The number of women who died annually from illegal abortions before passage of Roe v. Wade was not 10,000. Experts put the figure between 1,000 and 5,000 for the postwar period.

About the Author

Jennifer Baumgardner
Jennifer Baumgardner is the author, with Amy Richards, of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and...

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Andersen's view is progress, in a way, as is writer Elizabeth Wurtzel's when she says that her abortion was a sad and nasty experience from start to finish. After all, if we have to put a fresh and smiling face on everything we do--even if the procedure is constantly under attack by the right--then we haven't come far from the days of the Stepford Wives. Wurtzel and Anderson want better choices for women, not fewer. Still, such complexity poses a challenge to the prochoice movement when it is accompanied by greater tolerance for abortion restrictions. Several surveys, notably the UCLA study of incoming freshmen, have reported a decline in the proportion of those who support abortion rights.

The left isn't always the firmest ally of reproductive freedom, either. In a 1989 cover story for Ms. magazine, just before Webster v. Reproductive Health Services almost overturned Roe and ushered in the state's right to restrict abortions, Gloria Steinem insisted that we look at choice as a human right, not a "'single issue' to be bargained away." Sadly, some on the left have cast abortion as a kind of distraction, the inconvenient reason we are (fearfully, shortsightedly) tethered to otherwise compromised Democratic candidates.

Clearly, however, our big problem is the conservative Republican government and its veritable free pass to spawn confusingly named antichoice laws--laws that will affect poor women, young women and women of color most harshly because they are the most vulnerable and because they are the ones getting abortions. Poor women--whether teens or adults--are the only group whose abortion rate is rising. Black women are overrepresented when it comes to abortion, with a rate nearly four times that of white women. Latinas and Asian/Pacific Islander women have an abortion rate about two and a half times that of white women. It's illustrative to walk into a clinic in New York--"almost all of our patients are women of color," says the director of counseling for Parkmed Eastern Women's Center. And they're poor.

If Republicans don't quake in their boots at the thought of feminists coming after them, they are vulnerable as racists. Dr. Frist may not have openly pined for the plantation days, but he is from Tennessee, a state with a relatively large African-American population that has 13.5 percent of its population in poverty--constituents he is supposed to represent.

But for abortion to be perceived as a race and class issue, not just a white women's issue, the choice movement needs to represent--or at least connect with--the women getting abortions, who are the natural activists. The voices of young women, women of color and especially poor women (often also young women of color) tend not to inform abortion politics. You rarely find many women of color in prochoice organizations, especially on the boards. Whether the group is as huge as Planned Parenthood or as small as the New York Abortion Access Fund, you can almost bank on the fact that white women run it and black women (and to a lesser degree Latinas) are the "beneficiaries." Some current strategies of the prochoice movement, from focusing on the clueless young straw woman to NARAL's recent name change (to NARAL Pro Choice America, a moniker designed to appeal to mainstream--white, middle-class--America), aren't speaking to the women getting abortions, either. "It goes all the way back to Jane Roe," says Matthea Marquart, 27, the president of NOW-NYC. "If she had been a higher-income woman, she would have gone to Mexico to get an abortion."

"We are the real experts," feminists declared back when abortion was illegal. They took the debate out of the hands of men (doctors, judges and legislators) and put it in their own. Thirty years later, the most powerful feminist line on choice can't be forgotten: Decisions governing abortion should be made by the women getting the abortions.

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