Roe v. Wade Under Siege
It was a big day for Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. Their annual luncheon at the Stamford Marriott last April was a sellout as 550 mostly women, but including more than a few men, came to hear America’s leading women’s rights advocate Sarah Weddington tell it like it is.
There is no one better qualified to address the past and present of Roe v. Wade than Dr. Weddington. At the age of twenty-six with the ink barely dry on her law diploma, she argued the case before the nine all-male members of the U.S. Supreme Court, still the youngest ever to do so, and won.
The 1973 landmark decision legalizing abortion in the first trimester was based on the right to privacy as contained in the Fourteenth Amendment. Only two of the justices dissented. It was an incredible victory for those who believed that women have the right to choose to bear a child or not, and to control the size of the family and their own future.
The minister’s daughter would go on to become a Texas state legislator, assistant to President Jimmy Carter, professor, lecturer, author and founder of the Weddington Center, for women in leadership.
There was a hushed silence as Sarah Weddington took the podium and told of her battle to legalize abortion and contraception, and the continuing battle today with those who seek to nullify Roe v. Wade. State after state has introduced legislation and regulations that greatly inhibit or deny women access to clinics. In many states doctors avoid providing abortion for fear of legal retribution. “I would never have believed, “ she said, “that forty years later I would still be waging this battle.” Describing the days of back-alley and self-administered botched abortions that took so many women’s lives and rendered others damaged and infertile, she emphasized, “We must all fight to see that those dark days don’t return.”
Entering law school at the University of Texas, she took outside jobs to pay the tuition, but in her last year her relationship with her future husband had deepened and to her dismay she found herself pregnant. The two faced the life-changing decision on whether Sarah should bear their child or seek an abortion. It was illegal in Texas, and while also illegal in Mexico, it was not enforced. The result was a booming business across the border often conducted by unlicensed practitioners of uncertain medical ability. Her choice of a Mexican clinic was fortunate; many were not so lucky.
Ardent supporters from the University of Texas stood ready to challenge the strict Texas anti-abortion laws. It was decided to try having their case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. While a lower court had ruled that some provisions in the Texas laws were unconstitutional, the Dallas County District Attorney, Henry Wade, in true Texas fashion, announced that he would continue to prosecute under the old law regardless. This
actually helped strengthen their appeal for a hearing by the Supreme Court.
The alternative of waging a state-by-state battle was unfeasible and would have been endless. Yet, in spite of Roe v. Wade this is the very situation Planned Parenthood faces today in leading the fight for women’s health. Opponents of abortion have managed to mislabel and distort its mission. While the organization does not advocate abortion per se, (only 3 percent of its services are abortion procedures), it simply wants to guarantee women their legal right to make this emotionally difficult, personal decision that can profoundly affect their future.
Planned Parenthood’s educational programs, especially those for teenagers, have significantly reduced the incidence of unintended pregnancies. It also makes contraceptives available and affordable. Statistics provided by the Guttmacher Institute, the leading research organization on women’s health, show a significant decline in the abortion rate where contraceptives are widely available.
An equally important part of Planned Parenthood’s mission is providing basic health services for many women not covered by insurance. Last year PPSNE served 69,000 patients in Connecticut and Rhode Island who made 17,800 visits. Half were people of color, a quarter teens and
12 percent men. The largest group was women ages twenty to twenty-nine. Its eighteen clinics provide testing and treatment for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases along with annual physical exams including mammogram, pap tests and screening for diabetes. Yet for all these health benefits, Planned Parenthood continues to be under attack over the issue of abortion by a radicalized minority, when in fact its birth control programs have proven to reduce the need for abortion.
But that doesn’t discourage anti-abortionists from interfering with the operations of the clinics, often with paid pickets. At the Stamford clinic, one of the busier ones, a protester left her group, went inside to make an appointment for an abortion, then rejoined the picket line! Go figure.
Two generations of women owe much to Sarah Weddington’s Supreme Court victory of Roe over Wade. Her presentation made a convincing case for supporting the cause of women’s health and reproductive rights, a battle for which she sees no end. Still, she laced this serious subject with humor.
She recounted a story going around about Neil Armstrong. Everyone remembers what Armstrong said when he set foot on the moon, but few know what else he said. Seems that as a boy he threw a baseball that ended up in the Baxters’ yard next door, right under the open window of their bedroom. As he was retrieving it, he heard the loud voice of a woman from above saying, “You want sex? You’ll have sex when that kid down there walks on the moon!” Murmured Armstrong, climbing back into the lunar module, “Thank you, Mrs. Baxter.”
And thank you, Sarah Weddington.