Roe v. Wade at 40: Lost Ground and the Moment to Reclaim It

As 2012 came to a close, one of the last attacks on reproductive freedom in Arizona was in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the state of Arizona fought to defund Planned Parenthood. The state was appealing an injunction against HB2800, a new measure that would strip funding for family planning services from any health care facility that provides abortions.

The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade should serve as a call to action to defend reproductive freedom.

Following a year that saw more state-level legislation to restrict abortion access than any year in the last three decades, 2012 saw no reprieve. Besides HB2800, Arizona lawmakers voted on bills that barred employer coverage for birth control and access to medically necessary abortions. In response to part of the latter bill, the Arizona Department of Health Service’s website added a new section on abortion, which made its debut late last year, called “A Woman’s Right to Know” — a guide that employed scare tactics and other manipulation to deter women from seeking abortions.

Arizona reflected what was happening nationally. According to a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, Arizona has joined a new majority of states that are “solidly hostile to abortion rights.” In 2000, a third of women of reproductive age lived in such states. Today, more than half do. Since 2000, the number of states considered hostile to abortion doubled from 13 to 26.

As the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaches on January 22, we can look forward to a commemoration of the reproductive rights won in that landmark victory, but we’ll be commemorating an eroded and embattled version of those rights. Clues to how we got to this point were many in 2012. In May, the research organization 4th Estate released a report on media coverage of abortion, birth control, women’s rights, and Planned Parenthood. By a wide margin, men were quoted more than women in coverage of those four topics. Earlier in the year, a photo of five men on a birth control panel went viral on the Internet. As the New York Daily News reported, the photo, which showed Republican men testifying on the federal contraception mandate, “had more than 2,600 likes on Planned Parenthood’s Facebook page” and “more than 5,000 shares from that website alone” — all within two hours of being posted. Like many who saw the photo, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked, “Where are the women?”

But asking where the women are is just the start, and the question can make us lose sight of the fact that reproductive freedom and reproductive health should matter to women and men alike (even if that ideal doesn’t always square with reality). Looking just at abortion, the most common reasons women seek abortions reveal other rifts between policy makers and the people most affected by policy. According to the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, not feeling old or mature enough to raise a child is the most common reason given for having an abortion. The third most common reason (after not feeling ready for another child) is not being able to afford a child. Most members of Congress and state legislatures have enough years behind them and enough dollars to their name that their empathy with either of those situations could require a wake-up call from their constituents. A large majority of them are over 50 years of age, according to the Wall Street Journal and the National Conference of State Legislatures. And while compensation for state legislators is more modest, members of Congress receive salaries that put them in some of the highest income percentiles in the nation.

Those two reasons for seeking abortions could apply to a growing number of adults in their 20s and 30s. In her book The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition, sociologist Katherine Newman describes the slower path to adulthood that has resulted from a rising cost of living and a tougher job market. That slower path, what she calls the “elongation of adolescence,” has turned into a series of stages that form “a kind of trial period of greater liberty and responsibility short of the ultimate state of adult independence.”

A measure of this phenomenon is what Newman calls the accordion family, the multigenerational household that includes one or more kids who have moved back in with their parents, or in some cases haven’t moved out to begin with. According to Newman, “A higher proportion of adult children are living with their parents in the United States now than at any time since the 1950s.” Today, 18 percent of women and 22 percent of men between 25 and 34 live in accordion families.

For her book, Newman and her team of researchers surveyed households very similar to the Dallas home where Norma McCorvey lived in 1969 at the age of 21. McCorvey, better known by her alias Jane Roe, was living with her father and employed in a low-wage job. When she learned that she was pregnant for a third time, her search for an abortion provider and the legal obstacles she encountered — and the trials that ensued — led to the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade.

The living and financial situations that can compel people to seek abortions aren’t showing signs of reprieve for many young people. A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that unemployment for people between 16 and 24 is at its highest rate since World War II, and young adults are now competing with older workers for entry-level employment. The report warns that when unemployed young adults have children they can begin “an intergenerational cycle of poverty.”

Of course, there are many more reasons abortion should remain safe and legal. There are many more reasons the mounting setbacks need to be reversed. While access to abortion isn’t a perfect proxy for reproductive freedoms in general, it almost always reflects the political climate they exist in. That climate makes it clear that although commemoration is due, the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade should also serve as a call to action to defend reproductive freedom.

The 2012 election might have been the first sign that the tide is turning. Men with extreme views against reproductive freedom were roundly defeated. A record was set for the number of women Senators sent to Capitol Hill. And young voters made an even bigger impact in 2012 than in 2008. The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade should remind us why the momentum needs to keep building.