40 Years Later–What the Roe?

For Khan ArticleJanuary 22, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. All month, we’ll be running posts examining various aspects of this landmark ruling. If you’d like to contribute, let us know!

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. But 40 years later, does the ruling matter? The easy answer is no. While American women still have the right to have an abortion, many cannot exercise that right. Abortion opponents have successfully reduced women’s access to clinics that perform the procedure and placed unneccesary restrictions on many of the clinics that do. Four states have only one abortion clinic, the past two years have seen a record amount of antiabortion legislation passed in state legislatures, and 2013 is already promising more of the same.

But easy answers never tell the whole story. If they did, we would have stopped arguing about abortion ages ago–right around the time “Abortion is Murder” met “My Body, My Choice.” The uneasy answer is that Roe v. Wade very much matters in 2013 … except when it doesn’t.

Roe ensures that abortion is still safe and legal for the women who have them and the doctors who perform them.  Given that the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group whose statistics are cited by both abortion foes and advocates, estimates that nearly 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion by the time she is 45, that seems to fall in the “Roe matters” column.

But the fact that nearly 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 tells us nothing about what these women would do if Roe weren’t the law of the land. It doesn’t tell us much about anything, including Roe, beyond the procedure’s legality.

The number doesn’t tell us anything about how easy or difficult the abortion was to obtain. (Statewide restrictions can give us an idea, but no real measure.) The number doesn’t tell us anything about the abortion seeker’s decision-making process. (Again, we can assume, but as yet no one on either side of the abortion debate has gotten their hands on that ever-elusive window into women’s souls.) And the number certainly can’t measure how much their feelings about abortion were influenced by the activist efforts of others.

Here’s something we do know:

There has been a steady decline in the overall abortion rate since 1981.

Do fewer women want abortions? Is single motherhood losing its stigma? Are women simply getting better at preventing unwanted pregnancies? The only thing we can know for sure is that there is enough speculative room for anyone with an opinion about abortion to find something in that fact to take credit for.

40 years ago Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. It gave women the right to terminate a pregnancy that could not and would not exist without them. It did nothing to convince men or women that women were entitled to this right. It had no way of legislating the belief that a woman’s life is of equal or greater value than the life of a fetus growing inside her. What is one law against a couple millennia’s worth of sexist dogma?

I want to believe that there are more women today who believe they have the right to consider their lives at least as valuable as that of their offspring, at any stage of development, than there were 40 years ago. I want to believe that there are even more women who appreciate their intrinsic value 40 years in the future.

But right now it’s hard to imagine when the life of a hypothetical baby won’t trump the loud, disappointing life of a plain old woman every time. Look at the math. Almost one in three American women will have an abortion by the time she’s 45. About 61% of those abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children. Maybe the only thing abortion opponents have achieved in their neverending battle is ensuring that the millions of women who have abortions know they ought to feel ashamed of themselves. Because most of those women aren’t talking. At least not yet. Maybe one day that will change. But until then, in Roe I trust. A right in law may not be the same as a right on the level of life, but it’s better than waiting for American men and women to decide that women really are created equal.


About Jodi:
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.


  1. “I think it’s safe to say that the entire abortion industry is based on a lie. …I am dedicated to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.” – Norma McCorvey “Jane Roe” of Roe vs. Wade

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