In the most recent midterm election, Americans voted to preserve a woman’s constitutional right to choose by voting down the South Dakota movement to outlaw abortion. In several other states, voters further supported women’s reproductive health by voting down legislation meant to limit a woman’s access to abortion services. Since the court ruling of Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973, the reproductive rights movement has been successful in guaranteeing the rights of women to have safe and legal health care. Today, the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, is a time to celebrate the rights that generations of women and men have fought for. The best way to honor this struggle is to reflect on what we can still do to get women the reproductive choices and care that they deserve.
In spite of Roe v. Wade, legislation still seeks to limit women’s access to health-care options. Recent proposed legislation in several states has called for parental consent laws, spousal consent laws and imposed waiting periods before a woman can exercise her right to choose. These restrictions limit the number of women who can get access to safe and legal abortions, often preventing women who need abortion services the most — teenagers, victims of rape and incest, and women in abusive relationships — from getting the health care that they so desperately need. Such laws suggest that our society does not trust women to make informed and careful decisions about their own health. As a society, we need to trust that women can make healthy choices by themselves.
Just as it is important to respect a woman’s decision-making ability, it is necessary to empower her to be able to access options. The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976 as an adjunct to Roe v. Wade, excludes abortion from the health care coverage provided to low-income people through Medicaid. In addition, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 permits HMOs to refuse to cover costs of counseling or referral of services such as abortion for Medicaid patients if the HMO has moral or religious objections. Both of these pieces of legislation are discriminatory, preventing women from exercising their right to complete health care because of socioeconomic class. Women who may not be able to support a child are the ones who most often need access to abortion services. All women, regardless of class, should have the right to make their own reproductive decisions. Congress has a duty to repeal the Hyde Amendment in order to realize this right.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the nationwide need for abortion, a goal that can most effectively be achieved through birth control education and use. Recent political developments have improved the state of birth control and health education in the United States. In the winter of last year, the FDA approved Plan B, a form of emergency contraception, for over-the-counter sale, making access easier for the thousands of women who use EC to back up their birth control. The FDA also recently approved Gardasil, a vaccine against Human Papilloma Virus. HPV affects over 80 percent of sexually active individuals, and, if left untreated, it can cause cervical cancer. With this new vaccine, generations of women will be protected from this potentially fatal STD.
In spite of recent advancements, however, rights to sexual education and birth control are still under attack. The current administration is channeling huge amounts of money to abstinence-only sex-education programs, providing teens with few options and jeopardizing their health. On a local level, Catholic hospitals in Connecticut are refusing to provide emergency contraception to rape victims in the emergency room. Though providing EC in the ER is an essential part of complete health care, legislators are dragging their feet on putting this bill into law. As long as teens are not learning their full reproductive options and rape victims cannot obtain complete care at state-funded hospitals, reproductive rights activists have a duty to continue the struggle for comprehensive health care.
It has been over a generation since women obtained the right to choose the fate of their own bodies with Roe v. Wade. Since then, there has been a struggle between political parties, religious groups, activists, politicians and voters about the fate of choice. Ultimately, however, reproductive health is not about politics, but about women’s lives, health and well-being. As a society, we need to trust women to make healthy choices for themselves. We need to present and provide for all options involved in reproductive health. Every individual has a right to be healthy and to have options. Here’s to 34 more years of protecting that right.
Rachel Criswell is a senior in Branford College. She is a member of the Reproductive Rights Action League of Yale College and an intern for Planned Parenthood.