Forty years ago today, on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, forever changing women's lives.
The culture war over abortion and reproductive rights rages on.
But one thing is certain: We are never going back to the dark days before women assumed the right to control our own bodies and our own fates.
One of my favorite observations about this month's Roe anniversary came from New York Times columnist Gail Collins , who noted --with characteristically gentle wit--that Americans simultaneously feel queasy about the topic of abortion, and support women's right to choose by a wide margin.
While fewer young women are willing to label themselves "feminists" or even "pro-choice" than the previous generation, two-thirds still told Quinnipiac pollsters that they believe the Roe decision was right. "If pro-choice activists want to rebrand themselves the Movement for Leaving Women Alone, it’s likely nobody under the age of 50 would object," Collins writes.
You can't shove young women, who have grown up believing that they ought to be able to have full, happy sex lives, good health care, rewarding work, and children, too, when they want them and can care for them, that they ought to return to the world of the double standard, early, forced marriages, and sex lives full of darkness, fear, and shame.
In fact, we just had a national referendum on this issue.
Women voted overwhelmingly against the Paul Ryan/Todd Akin/Foster Fries worldview: that telling women to hold an aspirin between our legs is a funny and piquant response to the demand for birth control, that a law student who dares suggest that university health care include contraceptives deserves to be shamed by a powerful man with a national microphone as a "slut," that rape victims are lying about being assaulted if they get pregnant--because only a woman willing to have sex can conceive.
After losing in November, the Republicans have been in a huddle, most recently at a retreat last week in Virginia, trying to train themselves to stop shooting off their mouths like that. Women don't like it. And, unfortunately for Mitt Romney and Todd Akin, women not only have adjusted to a post Roe v Wade world--we also have the right to vote.
Unfortunately, the Movement For Leaving Women Alone faces some subtler foes than the loudmouths who lost the election for Mitt Romney.
Across the country, states are moving to defund Planned Parenthood, impose onerous restrictions on women seeking abortions, and generally make it harder, more dangerous, more emotionally trying, and more painful to get an abortion as well as other types of routine reproductive health care.
The Republican attacks on women's health care --and Planned Parenthood in particular--are especially maddening because they don't reduce abortion; they just increase misery.
Women in regions of the country and the world with more liberal abortion laws--and, correspondingly, better information and access to birth control--have fewer abortions.
At current rates, one in three American women will have an abortion by age 45. Almost half of the women who find themselves in an abortion clinic have not been using birth control--because they were worried about using it, couldn't get it, or didn't know that they could get pregnant.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Comedian and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead talked with my colleague Elizabeth DiNovella for a May 2012 interview in the Progressive, and painted a picture of a better world that is so close to reality, you can almost see it:
"I think people need to adopt Planned Parenthood in their communities. They have to say we are proud this American institution," Winstead said. "I think it goes back to the shame thing. When are you going to stop having the shame? It should be like LensCrafters. There should be a Planned Parenthood in every mall. Just like Cinnabon and Chico’s. To me, that would be the utopian society to live in."
Utopian, maybe, but not pie in the sky. Middle class and wealthy women already expect and receive shame-free reproductive health care, access to birth control in college, and a world in which back-alley abortions are a Medieval notion from a distant, wretched past.
Poor women are not so lucky.
And all women need to wake up and realize how shockingly retrograde the current direction of women's health policy really is--especially in states controlled by Republicans.
In Wisconsin, where I live, 93% of counties have no abortion provider at all. Adding to our already highly restrictive abortion laws, Republicans in the state legislature passed a law in the middle of the night last year taking away all state funding from Planned Parenthood. In the coming session, Republicans plan to introduce new restrictions that will make it more humiliating and difficult for women seeking abortions, including a bill that requires that doctors make women look at ultrasound pictures of their fetuses, a complete ban on abortion after 20 weeks with no exceptions for women's health, a "personhood amendment" that confers full legal rights on embryos, and new state funding for "crisis pregnancy centers" that use the occasion of an women walking in seeking help when they have unwanted pregnancy to proselytize against abortion.
Wisconsin's own Paul Ryan just introduced a personhood amendment in Congress, which could, among other consequences, redefine common forms of birth control like the pill and the I.U.D. as weapons of murder.
What are we to do in this political environment?
Here are a few suggestions:
--Keep the public pressure on elected officials.
--Don't give up and sit back just because you are on the losing side in one particular district at one particular time. The anti-abortion folks sure haven't done that.
--Even if your state and federal representatives are good old boys with the slut-shaming, "aspirin-between-the-knees" mentality, they need to experience some pressure from their pro-choice constituents. The anti-abortion lobby is relentless. The Movement For Leaving Women Alone needs to make its voice heard, to make clear that when our representatives throw red meat to conservatives with their extreme anti-women's-health measures, their constituents are paying attention. If the 2012 election shows anything, it's that voters are sick and tired of Republicans using women's health to score points with their rabidly out-of-it base.
--Choose Planned Parenthood as your health-care provider. Many forms of insurance allow you to go to Planned Parenthood. Do it. Women's health care clinics should be for everyone, not just for those who have no other option. Especially as Planned Parenthood loses state funding, more women choosing to go there will help keep these clinics going--and also bring together women from every background, which feels good.
--Share your story. On Sunday, I will be master of ceremonies at an event marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, put on by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, and featuring the riveting personal stories of women whose lives have been touched by Planned Parenthood and Roe. Planned Parenthood is collecting personal testimony from women all over America. You can share your story, too .
--Be vigilant. Sign up for Action Alerts from Planned Parenthood so you can get involved at both the state and national level when urgent policy issues that effect women's health come up.
Most of all, it's time for women to come out of the closet and stand up, in public, for reproductive rights. Yes, birth control and abortion and even annual pap smears and breast cancer screenings are private matters that we shouldn't have to speak out about and march for and deal with creepy people with gory signs over, or generally go out in public and take a big, loud political position on. But guess what? Those out-of-it men who haven't got the memo that women expect these things to be a regular, non-negotiable, no-big-deal part of our lives are still directing policy. We have no choice but to push back.
And by doing that--by standing up together for our vision of a better world--we can force our country to leave the pre-Roe, Stone Age of women's health behind, once and for all.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Bernie Sanders Urges Obama: Don’t Cut Social Programs".
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter