Jane Ahlin column: Woman's right to choose is basic right of privacy

As the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is observed, it's important to note that abortion rights did not spring from a vacuum. Before Roe v. Wade became law, public consciousness over many issues regarding girls and women had been on the rise:...

As the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is observed, it's important to note that abortion rights did not spring from a vacuum. Before Roe v. Wade became law, public consciousness over many issues regarding girls and women had been on the rise: Why shouldn't girls play basketball and run track like boys? Why shouldn't girls grow up to be surgeons and stock brokers and senators? Why should a woman be paid less than a man in the same job? Why shouldn't married women have credit cards in their own names? Why should contraceptives be illegal? Why should a teacher have to go on leave when visibly pregnant? Why should motherhood end careers for women when fatherhood didn't end careers for men?

As old assumptions about the female half of the population were challenged, a case for gender equality was made on many fronts. And it was in that context of cultural change that the right for women to have control of their own bodies -- particularly, their reproductive lives -- assumed importance. Wombs were not government issue, and pregnant women were not government wards. Government's responsibility to the unborn had to balanced with a woman's right not to have the government interfere with her person. That meant that the early stages of pregnancy were not the state's business.

In the words of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, writing for the 7-2 court majority, "When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus [about when life begins] the judiciary ... is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

Over the 30-year history of Roe, anti-abortion forces have been unable to undermine that basic right to privacy; therefore, the front for their energy in recent times has centered on efforts to elevate embryos and fetuses to legal status. An example is the Bush administration's strategy allowing states to define embryos and fetuses as "children" for the purposes of Medicaid and to call embryos "human subjects" for the purposes of medical research. The idea is that widespread changes in language concerning embryonic life will lead to changes in the legal interpretation of abortion rights. And the moral and ethical challenges of petri-dish embryos -- from the stem cell research debate to the embryo "custody battles" of divorced couples to the specter of cloning -- provide a whole new arena to push for language changes.

Those who would take abortion rights away from women have become politically savvy, too, ignoring the abortive procedures routinely employed in fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilization. However, both commonly result in the implantation of several embryos which are then "selectively reduced" (surgically aborted), at 9-12 weeks gestation, so that the women can bring a healthy baby to term.


They don't seem worried that by ignoring those procedures they may have to explain why "excess" embryos are different from ones conceived by a 19-year-old who was date-raped or by a poor woman trying to escape an abusive marriage while protecting and providing for the children she already has. They'd rather perpetuate the myth of self-centered women who have their nails done, grab a light lunch with friends, and then drop into the abortion clinic for a quick fix, or the myth of ignorant women duped by the abortion "industry." They certainly don't want to equate the pain of infertile couples with the pain of women and girls dealing with incest, rape, economic desperation, family fragility, mental illness, or domestic abuse. But that's reality.

Of course, those who want to outlaw abortion also conveniently skirt the subject of contraception. And yet, birth control pills, IUDs, Norplant, and Depo-Provera all function as abortifacients when they fail to prevent conception.

Perhaps the most important point to acknowledge on this 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is that no woman can be forced to have an abortion, and that has been true for all 30 years. No matter the medical consequences for mothers or their babies, no matter the financial burdens for medical institutions or taxpayers, no matter the social consequences for families and children already born, no woman is forced to have an abortion. Period. Her reproductive life is her responsibility; it is her choice.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages.

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