Center for American Progress

Understanding the Past and Keeping an Eye on the Future

Understanding the Past and Keeping an Eye on the Future

Abortion has been around as long as sex. And there have always been unplanned pregnancies – and they’ve never happened to men. When they do, men can make their own decisions. But until that time, women have to fight to protect their rights.

And the upcoming march in Washington is important, because young women and men who cannot remember what it was like when we had no legal choice need to know that unless we pay attention, that right can be taken away. I worry that for a lot of younger people, the right to a safe, legal abortion is taken for granted – they’ve never known a time when it was unsafe and illegal. And while it’s usually the case that societies move forward, we’re now in an era when people like John Ashcroft think it’s a good idea to go backwards.

I remember well what it was like when abortion was illegal. After the birth of her third child, one of my relatives was told by her doctor that she should avoid having more children. Remember that birth control was neither as widely available nor as effective then as it is today. When she did get pregnant again, she had nothing but bad choices: she could have the child, and risk death; she could try to find a doctor who would perform an abortion at great risk to his professional career; or she could find a back alley abortionist.

Better educated and more affluent women could find a doctor to perform an illegal abortion – but the vast majority of women could not. And so they hid, they broke the law, and many died – those who survived suffered alone, in humiliation and fear.

Then there was a time, when my children were growing up, when abortion was legal in some states, like New York. Most people knew someone who mysteriously went off to visit an aunt, but who was really crossing state lines in order to obtain a legal abortion. But then, as well, this was an option available to the women and families who could afford to travel away from home, who could afford to take off time from work, and could afford to pay for the procedure.

When abortion was legalized, none of us were elated – we were relieved. But we were tricked into a debate that is framed as pro-life versus pro-choice. All of us are pro-life. I’m a mother, an active member of my community, and a good citizen – the notion that I am not pro-life is both inaccurate and offensive. But I am also adamantly pro-choice. In being pro-choice, we’ve also been branded pro-abortion – and that’s not accurate, either. Abortion is a last resort, and poses a painful, difficult choice for women.

But it’s the choice that matters. And I’m afraid that unless all of us – women of all ages and men of all ages – take a stand for choice, we will lose, and go back to a time when women had less control of their lives and abortion was illegal and dangerous. The Bush administration wants to take us there – and we need to let them know that we’re not going.

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