40 Years After Roe v. Wade, We Still Fall Short of Reproductive Justice

As the Roe v Wade decision reaches its 40th anniversary, Terri O'Neil, president of National Organization of Women, reflects on what it has meant and what still needs to be done.

Forty years ago this month, the Supreme Court affirmed a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in the United States, forever changing and literally saving the lives of countless women. The impact of Roe has been both inspiring and frustratingly insufficient.
Access to abortion care, as well as birth control, helped pave the way for women to participate in the world outside the home in ways that men have long taken for granted. During the second half of the 20th century, we witnessed the incredible transformation of women's role in U.S. society. Women streamed into universities and workplaces. They began taking on jobs that once seemed permanently reserved for men. They moved into positions of power in politics and corporations. Their economic status relative to men improved dramatically.
Could all this have happened without Roe v. Wade and the earlier cases that established the right to use contraception? Of course not. As now-retired U.S. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once noted, women's ability to "organize intimate relationships and make choices that define their views of themselves and their place in society" was directly attributable to Roe. She continued: "The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."
But the ongoing march toward full equality for all women requires more than an acknowledgement that a "right to choose" exists. One in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45, making the procedure a common and necessary aspect of women's reproductive health. But it is by no means the be-all and end-all of our health. Without access to the full spectrum of reproductive care—from prenatal care to mammograms, comprehensive sex education to STD/HIV screenings, in addition to birth control and abortion—a woman's ability to define her place in society will remain elusive. That these services are disproportionately out of reach for women of color, young women, immigrant women, and Native American women speaks to the limitations of Roe.

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