January 25, 2021
And that's the tee... on Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights
You’ve probably heard of the historic court case, Roe v. Wade, but chances are it was just a blip in your high school history class, a question or two you crammed for and then spaced on, like we all inevitably do. No shade, ladies, but we do think it merits more attention than that, so in honor of its 48th anniversary (Jan. 22) and our first ever edition of “And That’s The Tee,” we’ve got a little refresher coming your way.
Every month, right here on The F Word blog, we’re gonna spill on the inspiration and herstory behind The Feminista graphic tees. Knowledge is power after all, and the only thing more fly than wearing your feminism on your sleeve is being fully informed while you’re at it.
So without further ado, let’s hit the books and get a quick reminder of the state of affairs before Roe v. Wade, what made it such a famous and important case, and why it hangs in the balance today.
Abortion before Roe v. Wade
Before we get to the case, let’s take a look at what reproductive rights looked like in America pre-1973. In colonial times and up until the 1800s, midwives were responsible for the vast majority of reproductive health care, and it was fairly common practice to perform abortions prior to “quickening,” usually some time between 17 and 20 weeks, when women began to feel the fetus move.
Back then, most protestations to this practice were rooted in religion and considered a personal moral stance, not a legal issue. In fact, history shows that early anti-abortion legislation passed in the U.S. had less to do with morals and more to do with white supremacy and racism. For starters, more than half of the midwives administering reproductive care—abortions and otherwise—were Black and Indigenous, and soon after white men began to study gynecology, anti-midwifery propaganda was spread to eliminate the competition.
The first statute to ban abortion was passed in Florida in 1821, and other states began to follow suit. After the civil war, it got even more sinister: white supremacists feared a growing Black population and wanted white women to have as many children as possible to maintain a racial majority. Taking away women’ right to choose would ensure it.
By 1900, every state had laws prohibiting it. And, as we all know, abortions didn’t go away; they simply became far less safe. Some physicians still provided them privately but faced serious legal ramifications if they were caught. And because those doctors were scarce and hard to find, many women had to travel great distances to receive care or resorted to at-home abortions that were incredibly dangerous and sometimes resulted in serious injury or death.
The case that made herstory
The Supreme Court’s decision came in 1973, but the story begins in 1970, when a woman named Norma McCorvey got pregnant in the state of Texas. At that time, the law stated that women could not get an abortion unless their lives were in danger by the pregnancy.
Since McCorvey’s life was not at risk and she couldn’t afford to travel out of state where abortions were legal, she was left without options and decided to sue the government for interfering with her right to choose. She was given a pseudonym for privacy, which was “Jane Roe.” The District attorney of Dallas County at the time? Henry Wade.
Thankfully, the court ruled in favor of Roe in a 7-2 decision. Following the ruling, Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun said, “although the results are divided, most of these courts have agreed that the right of privacy, however based, is broad enough to cover the abortion decision; that the right, nonetheless, is not absolute, and is subject to some limitations; and that, at some point, the state interests as to protection of health, medical standards, and prenatal life, become dominant.”
With that, the all-important pro-choice precedent was set. A woman’s constitutional right to privacy now covers the right to make personal decisions about procreation. Sure, that bit about “some limitations” for state interests left the waters pretty murky, and many states have pushed those limits to their legal extremes, but the victory was still an incredibly important milestone for the movement and made abortion safer and more accessible for women across the country.
It’s my body, it’s my choice, damnit. Officially.
How things changed & abortion access today
Roe v. Wade has played a major role in women’s liberation over the last 48 years, giving women so much more opportunity to pursue education, build their careers, and start families on their own time, if at all. Of course, the decision didn’t come without some clapback from its opponents.
Immediately after the case was decided, anti-choice advocates pressed state and federal lawmakers to pass laws to eliminate funding for clinics that provide abortions, require young women to obtain consent from or notify their parents prior to receiving care, and restrict access in other ways.
Over a thousand state restrictions have been passed since 1973, so while Roe v. Wade gives women the right to choose in theory, your access and ability to receive that kind of care varies greatly from state to state.
Preventing a post-Roe future
First, the good news: despite the many state laws that exist to prevent abortion, the federal precedent set by Roe v. Wade has been tested in over thirty Supreme Court cases since the initial decision, and so far it’s held up. The potentially bad news? Two new conservative justices have recently been given seats in the nation’s highest court, and if the precedent is tested again, it’s hard to tell what the outcome will be.
Already, women who live in red states like Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have very limited access to reproductive health care and are forced to travel to blue ones in order to receive the treatment they need, and if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that situation will only get worse. Plus, women could start to face criminal charges for seeking an abortion.
Lucky for us, pro-choice activists have been laying the groundwork for this possibility for decades, so there are already systems in place to help young women without access find safe health care. It’s simply a matter of scale. If you feel so inclined, get online, find your local abortion fund, and give a little to help this feminist cause.
*And remember! Being pro-choice doesn’t mean you have to be pro-abortion. Every woman is entitled to their own opinion on the subject. It’s just that every woman should also have the right to decide what to do with her own body. Hear that, lawmakers?!So throw on your All Rights Reserved pro-choice tee and make your stance known in style. No need to panic yet, but if Roe v. Wade does end up overturned, we’ll be ready for the fight.