Guest Commentary

Reflecting on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision

When Norma McCorvey, a 22-year-old woman living in Dallas County, Texas sued Henry Wade, the Dallas County District Attorney on March 3, 1970, she used the name "Jane Roe." This is a placeholder name, a pseudonym for a woman whose given name is not the most important or relevant thing about her. Norma McCorvey's name was not the most important thing about her lawsuit. What was more important was that she was pregnant, and Texas law severely restricted what she and every other Texas woman could and could not do with their bodies. Jane Roe was essentially every Texas woman. But Texas was not the only state that outlawed abortion in 1970. Jane Roe was also every Iowa woman, and Connecticut woman, and Arizona woman.

Pre-Roe anti-abortion laws did not just limit what women could do with their bodies. In different ways, these statutes also controlled and criminalized the reproductive choices men could make as well. In 1970, a couple who was in love and committed to each other, but who felt they could not raise a family properly, could not have a practical discussion about whether they wanted to bring a child into the world. Jane Roe was not only every Texas woman. She was every man and woman in the United States who wanted to be free to communicate and decide with their partner what to do with their bodies, their futures, and their lives.

We were all Jane Roe in 1970, and we were all Jane Roe three years later, on Jan. 22, 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that the Fourteenth Amendment's conception of personal liberty encompasses a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.

As the Supreme Court acknowledged in Roe, the question of when life begins is an immensely complicated one, and the judiciary cannot be expected to settle a question that medicine, philosophy, and theology have been unable to answer with any consensus. The law is a blunt instrument, best suited for situations that contain little moral ambiguity. Conversely, family planning and the needs and capabilities of potential mothers and fathers are infinitely subjective, and complicated by gender, religion, race, and class. This is part of the reason the Roe Court decided that government should not insert itself into the highly personal patient-physician relationship, and decide on its own what is best for every woman's body. The anniversary of Roe v. Wade reminds us this is as true today as it was in 1970.

Sadly, forty years after Roe was decided, state legislatures continue to attack women's access to family planning services, despite the fact that a majority of Americans support access to safe and legal abortion. National political figures claim that women who are raped should not have the option of an abortion, because pregnancy due to "legitimate rape" is a near-impossibility, and when such pregnancies do occur they are "something that God intended." This is the worst kind of paternalism, and it voices an authoritarian sentiment — still prevalent in many state capitols — that government should monitor and control the most personal decisions we make.

The effects of such government interference will not be felt uniformly. Poor, young women of color have been and continue to be the most impacted by governments' attempts to control reproductive decision-making. But if Roe is rolled back, they will not be the only ones who will suffer. Our history shows that when the poor and the vulnerable are oppressed, the rest of us are not far behind. Jane Roe's lawsuit stands for the proposition that all Americans, no matter their backgrounds, have an inalienable right to determine for themselves what is best for their families and their futures. That proposition endures. None of us are willing to give up control of our bodies. All of us insist on leading our own lives. Jane Roe insisted on being treated like a person, not a vessel, not an object. We are all Jane Roe.