Shifting Ground

The 36th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Social conservatives and progressives should concentrate on what unites us, write Jessica Arons and Shira Saperstein on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

A mother with her three children at home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)
A mother with her three children at home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

Event with full video: Time for a Change in the Reproductive Rights Debate

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply,” said President Barack Obama in his inaugural speech. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of reproductive rights.

It is long past time for our country to move beyond the tired culture wars to find real solutions to improve people’s lives. Yet many anti-abortion groups are nevertheless sounding the alarm that Congress will soon pass and President Obama sign the Freedom of Choice Act, undoing all their efforts to restrict and eradicate abortion.

This is a false alarm. There are no current plans in Congress to vote on FOCA. But no matter. Leaders of the anti-abortion movement will still try to use it to foment fear that Obama is “the most pro-abortion president in history” and claim a victory when the bill doesn’t move forward

These cynics have benefited from the culture wars and are resistant to working toward meaningful solutions. The fight over social issues such as abortion raises money and increases their visibility, helping them to maintain political relevance at a time when their influence is waning. And the culture wars provide an opportune distraction from taking on real, progressive reform on health care, the economy, and the environment.

So these leaders continue their attempts to manipulate well-meaning Americans who feel moral consternation about abortion. They ignore the historic opportunity for healing and unity that comes with the inauguration of our first African-American president—a man who has pledged to find areas of common ground and work toward shared goals and values.

Reproductive rights advocates are eager to see President Obama take action to undo the damage of the past eight years—to overturn the notorious global gag rule, restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund, reverse Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services’ midnight “provider conscience” regulation, end abstinence-only funding, and renew support for family planning services. We also want to ensure that all women—including low-income women—have access to legal and safe abortion services. But abortion, though certainly important, is only one of many issues on which work needs to be done.

Today, on Roe v. Wade’s 36th anniversary, President Obama has an opportunity to outline a new, holistic approach to reproductive rights and health that works not only to provide people with the ability to determine whether or when to have children, but also to help them become parents and parent with dignity, have healthy pregnancies, and have safe and healthy families and relationships.

There were numerous reports last year highlighting the dire state of reproductive health and rights in this country and the need for a new approach to these issues:

  • The teen pregnancy rate is increasing after several years of decline, and one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Progress on reducing infant mortality has stalled, and the United States is now tied with Poland and Slovakia for 29th place worldwide.
  • More than 50,000 people per year are newly infected with HIV, and AIDS is the number one killer of African-American women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Maternal mortality continues to be a persistent and tragic problem around the world. More than 530,000 women die in childbirth each year, more than 99 percent of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Women in Sierra Leone have a one in eight chance of dying in childbirth, while in Ireland, which has the lowest rate in the world, the rate is 1 in 48,000. The U.S. rate is 1 in 4,800, which places us 41st on a list of 171 countries.

Unintended pregnancy, high rates of STIs, including HIV/AIDS, and infant and maternal mortality are all largely preventable with relatively low-cost interventions. Universal access to comprehensive sexuality education, family planning, STI prevention services, and emergency obstetrical care would go a long way toward addressing these problems—and their high cost to women and their families.

Instead of attacking funding for Planned Parenthood and preventing it from delivering basic heath care services to poor women, social conservatives could work with progressives to achieve affordable, quality health care for all. Instead of lobbying to maintain support for failed abstinence-only programs, they could join our efforts to ensure that every American child is adequately educated to work in the new economy. And instead of fighting over FOCA, we could work together to ensure that every woman can prevent pregnancy when that is her desire, maintain healthy wanted pregnancies, and obtain the economic and social supports necessary to provide children with love and security.

Reproductive health and rights are essential, not peripheral, to building healthy families and communities. And they need not be an obstacle to the political change that President Obama has promised. At this historic moment, let us not be distracted and divided by outdated culture wars. Let us pursue our areas of agreement on the measures necessary to protect women’s health, dignity, and lives with sincerity and good faith. It is time for this critical work to begin.

Event with full video: Time for a Change in the Reproductive Rights Debate

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Jessica Arons

Director, Women\'s Health & Rights Program

Shira Saperstein