In the 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, women's rights advocates have faced an unyielding onslaught of state and local government legislation designed solely to gut Roe's provisions and strip women of their fundamental rights, a group of panelists argued at an event held at the law school on Sept. 20.
"Roe v. Wade is not the law of this land," Dr. Willie Parker, the event's keynote speaker, an abortion practitioner, advocate and director of the Family Planning Associates of Chicago, told a packed audience at the school. Abortion is an issue of reproductive health, Parker said. Yet, rather than aid women in finding proper treatment, state and local government legislation fueled by the "perception that women are incapable of making decisions for themselves," have left women with few options. "Women's rights are being eroded by the day but where is the public outcry?" Parker asked.
Angela Hooton from the Center for Reproductive rights echoed Parker's sentiments. Due to various legislative efforts at the state level, more than half of U.S. women live in a state hostile to abortion, she said. In fact, in some states, like North Dakota and Arkansas, there is only one clinic forcing women to travel hundreds of miles just to access proper care.
Susan Frietsche from the Women's Law Project in Western Pennsylvania claimed that the Pa. legislature spent one-third of their voting days pushing 1,237 pages of anti-abortion legislation forward, more than the text of the Affordable Care Act.
Elayne Weiss, an Earle Mack School of Law alum and current attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, added that, at the federal level, not much has changed since Roe. People are still making the same arguments and, although her office has made small strides, on the political front, they are still dealing with the same anti-choice lawmakers with a legislative agenda, she said.
Many panelists agreed that the only way for women to reclaim abortion rights would be to fight at the state and local level for legislation affording women proper health benefits and care. However, other panelists, like Jen Boulanger from The Women's Centers, spoke of the stigma associated with abortion. "Abortion was less stigmatized after Roe than it is now," she said.
Boulanger argued that abortion advocates must learn from the gay rights movement. Women who have been shamed into thinking that abortion is not a morally viable option must change that perception. Just as gay rights activists fought through a similar stigma, abortion advocates must do the same so that people can focus on the real issues, she added.
Patty Skuster of Ipas, a global nonprofit that works to increase women's ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, claimed that women's rights abroad are far more advanced. Internationally, abortion is seen as a human rights issue, she said, with governments charged with the duty to provide a legal abortion. Although health problems are greater internationally, abortion advocates have an easier time advancing abortion rights, she added.
While reflecting on the stark contrast between state of abortion rights in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the world, Carol Tracy of the Women's Law Project, captured the recurrent theme underlying the entire symposium. How unfortunate it is, she argued, that 40 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion rights in the U.S. have been diluted to such a level that countries the U.S. might otherwise label underdeveloped, afford women greater abortion protection and health care than it does.
The event was curated by Professor David S. Cohen and hosted by the Law Students for Reproductive Justice, American Constitution Society, and National Lawyers Guild.