An open op-ed by Louise Melling, Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and Susan L. Derwin, Director, ACLU of Florida Reproductive Freedom Project
On this, the 36th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we celebrate a moment of great hope and opportunity. We stand at an extraordinary historical moment for our nation: for the first time, we have elected an African American president in an election that inspired young and old, people of all races and faiths, men and women, rich and poor. Many were moved by candidate Obama’s call for a new conversation about race, a renewed commitment to our democracy, and an agenda that aspires to reach a greater good for all. Today, we focus on the piece of that agenda that holds great promise for reproductive rights.
In the wake of President Obama’s inauguration, it is tempting to use this Roe anniversary to recite a litany of policies we want our new administration to enact: from rescinding the global gag rule to restoring affordable birth control at college health centers to reversing the Bush administration’s midnight rule allowing a broad range of health care providers to refuse basic reproductive health services. While these policy changes are important, they will remain vulnerable to the ebb and flow of politics if we do not also do our part to change the public conversation about abortion.
We know that women have abortions for many reasons. Even if we disagree on the issue of abortion, we can agree that these are private personal decisions we all must be able to make based on our own circumstances, beliefs, and values. We should respect and support a woman and her family as they face the life-altering decision of whether to have a child. It is neither my place nor our government’s place to make such an important life decision for someone else.
Here in Florida we face new proposed restrictions on reproductive freedom with each legislative session, restrictions that go well beyond what was decided 36 years ago in Roe. It is time to recognize the simple need to trust women. Women deserve the opportunity to make this very private medical decision for themselves without further intervention by the state.
At the same time, we should also begin to reduce the need for abortion with education. Florida has the sixth highest teen pregnancy rate of any state in the country. We hope to see the Healthy Teens Act pass, bringing comprehensive sex education to our schools to provide our children with the tools to make appropriate decisions for themselves, and to reduce not only teen pregnancies but also the transmission of sexually transmitted infections.
Through my work, I am privileged to hear the personal stories of many women who have had to make difficult decisions in their lives. Each woman has her own story, her own life circumstances, her own health issues, her own dreams and desires, her own vision of how she may make the world a better place. Many care for children, elderly parents, or other loved ones in need. While each woman’s life is different, I am most struck by what we have in common. We all care about life and about doing our best for the people we love. When we bring children into the world we want them to have the opportunity to live a good life. And we want to build a better future for our children and our grandchildren.
Abortion and reproductive freedom more broadly defined are important pieces of ensuring this common dream. To obtain a better future, we each must be free to make profoundly personal decisions about our reproductive lives without unwarranted government intrusion. As with all freedoms, there are limits. But a government that respects the personal integrity of its people both interferes in these essentially private decisions as little as possible and helps ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make these decisions responsibly.
We can continue with the politics of abortion we have known for a generation, one that has exploited our ambivalences and fear for political gain. Or we can learn from this past year and take this moment of opportunity and hope to start a new conversation, one that begins with the understanding that both the decision to have a child and the decision to have an abortion come from a place of profound respect for the value of life and a strong commitment to ensuring a better life for all.