Freedom of Choice
A Mirror for America Essay
Few issues divide the United States of America as much as the debate over abortion rights. As the country splits along the lines of those who are known as “pro-life”; i.e., opposed to abortion, and those who are known as“pro-choice”; i.e., those who believe it is up to the woman to decide, it is important that public officials understand the history of the abortion debate in order to effectively create legislation regarding it. The history of abortion rights in the United States is long and arduous. Prior to 1880, there were few, if any, laws in the United States restricting abortion. By 1880, however, most states had banned the practice unless it was used in cases where the life of the mother was at risk.
In the 1960s, as second-wave feminism began to take off, an underground network called the Jane Collective began to provide illicit abortions and abortion counseling to women in need, often under dangerous circumstances. It is estimated that the Jane Collective performed over 11,000 illegal abortions from its 1969 inception to the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. As this happened, abortion activists fought the states to remove the restrictions that had been placed on the practice, and in the years before 1974, fourteen states reformed and four repealed restrictive abortion laws. Meanwhile, the women’s liberation movement continued to lobby on a national level to make abortions safe and legal for all women. Their efforts bore fruit in 1973, when the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion on a national level. Finally, women who could not afford to travel to places where abortion was legal were no longer forced to carry their pregnancies to term or resort to back-room abortions.
However, the victory of Roe v. Wade by no means signified the end of the war on women’s rights. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, states have enacted over a thousand restrictions to abortion access. During the period of time between 1983–2010, legislators focused on state-mandated counseling, waiting periods and limits on late-term abortion. The Supreme Court handed down decisions in cases such as Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld these types of provisions. From 2011 through 2015, states added, on average, 57 new restrictions per year. Limits on the abortion pill, private insurance coverage and late-term abortion as well as expanded requirements for parental involvement and abortion counseling account for more than half of the new restrictions adopted over this period.
Prior to the Roe v. Wade ruling, an estimated 5,000 or more women died every year due to unsafe and illegal abortions. Today, the death rate is much lower, around 0.6 for every 100,000 procedures. The legalization of abortion allows women to obtain timely procedures, reducing the risk of serious complications. However, many government officials still continue to push for restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. The truth is, highly restrictive abortion laws have no correlation to lower abortion rates. The average rate is 37 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age where the practice is prohibited or restricted to cases where the life of the mother is at stake, compared with 34 per 1,000 where abortions are legally available on request.
These restrictions are nothing less than arbitrary and misogynistic attacks on a woman’s fundamental right to choose what she does with her own body. Women in the United States of America have fought long and hard against patriarchal oppression (a fight which is by no means over), and to allow the government to dictate the limits of a woman’s right to choose is to negate the sacrifices that have been made in pursuit of this struggle. Public officials take office with the understanding that they represent all of their constituents, regardless of race, gender, or any other characteristic. Therefore, it is their duty to fight against legislation at all levels of government that would seek to infringe upon the rights of women.
Of course, an issue as contentious as the freedom of choice must, to a certain degree, be considered on a case-by-case basis, as the decision to have an abortion must be made between a woman and her doctor. Public officials must recognize this fact, but they must also recognize that it is in the best interests of all women, as well as the American public as a whole, to ensure that a woman’s freedom of choice remains inviolable.