Melissa Weiler Gerber and Ann Fessler
support choice for women
On the 35th anniversary of the landmark
Roe v. Wade
Supreme Court decision, impassioned words fill our newspapers and airwaves and pervade the discourse at the water cooler and on the campaign trail. Few, if any, issues generate the passion of the debate about a woman's right to a safe, legal abortion. Too often, the conversation is condensed into media-friendly sound bites unbefitting such a complex issue. Those who believe in a woman's reproductive freedom are characterized as pro-abortion or anti-life. Extraordinary efforts are made to limit, challenge and overturn the Roe decision as if that alone would solve the moral dilemma surrounding unwanted pregnancies. History suggests otherwise.
We know that in the pre-Roe era in America, as in every era everywhere, girls and women became pregnant unintentionally. The post-World War II era was a tricky landscape to maneuver. The nation was heading into a sexual revolution, but with no comprehensive sex education or access to reliable contraceptives. An extraordinary number of pregnancies resulted.
With no access to safe, legal abortions, an estimated 250,000 to one million women each year resorted to unsafe abortions that were responsible for an estimated 40 percent of all maternal deaths during this period. Women who did not want or were unable to obtain an abortion were under tremendous societal pressure to conceal and deny their pregnancies. They frequently were shunned by their families, friends and schools. More than 1.5 million such women during this period were secreted away to maternity homes and host houses where they were hidden until they gave birth and surrendered their children for adoption, often against their will.
This is an era in women's history that, until recently, had been as hidden-away as the pregnancies themselves. The impact of the coerced nature of many of these surrenders, and the denial of any emotions following them, had gone unstudied. It is morally convenient to portray abortion as the ultimate evil and adoption as the ultimate good in the quest to tidily resolve the untidy issue of unwanted pregnancies. But, as with most things in life, it just is not that simple.
Every woman who experiences an unplanned pregnancy is faced with a decision of enormous magnitude that is likely to leave its imprint on the rest of her life. About that there is little debate. The only debate is around who, at such a personal and introspective moment, should be empowered to choose the best among difficult options. We can daydream about an era when each time a woman learns of a pregnancy, she greets that news with celebration. But daydreaming is all it would be. We do not live in such a time. Our pre-
sisters did not live in such a time. Overturning
would not in any way change this.
Let us live in reality rather than daydreams. First, let us work to limit the number of unplanned pregnancies in our nation by embracing comprehensive sex education in our schools and requiring complete contraceptive coverage from our insurance companies. Next, let us support a wide range of choices for women confronting unplanned pregnancies. For those who seek to carry their pregnancies to term and raise their children, let us support them with family-sustaining public policies, such as quality, affordable child care and health care. For those who determine that adoption is best for them and for their babies, let us continue to evolve adoption practice and policy in a way that recognizes the complexity and intensity of the act for all parties involved. And, for those who decide to terminate their pregnancies, let us pledge to support their right to do so safely and legally.
Let us give women the autonomy and respect they deserve to determine what is best for their bodies, their souls, their families, their futures. Let us believe in the wisdom of women.