Monday, January 22, 2007

Happy 34th Birthday Roe!

Today is the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and hence I am joining the chorus of blogger's voices on the importance of this landmark decision. I have written extensively on the issue of abortion on this blog. Either I have told you of my research on a pre-Roe abortion physician, or I have debated with you the morality of abortion.

Today, I want to emphasize why I believe the legalization of abortion is crucial to the equality and dignity of American women. Roe v. Wade gave American women important rights to bodily integrity. It told the state that it could not impose a pregnancy on a woman, and it affirmed that the state cannot mandate medical procedures on another person's body. Above all, the value of Roe is that it made clear that women are full, autonomous human beings who are to be trusted to make the very best decisions for their own well-being and the well-being for whom they care.

Before Roe, women were infantalized by the law; they were considered untrustworthy and incapable of making sound moral decisions. If a pre-Roe woman wanted an abortion performed by a real physician, she had to confirm the unspoken view that women were mentally weak, morally corrupt and thereby unfit to be trusted to raise children. The humiliation of these women was unconscionable, especially after the 100 year struggle for women's citizenship and the right to vote. To grant women the right to vote is to grant that women are full and equal participants in a democracy; women are considered morally capable of making their own moral choices without the state mandating what they can and cannot do.

Perhaps an analogy will help illuminate my point. Recently, I was privy to a custody negotiation between a non-custodial father and custodial mother. The father is in no way a poor father, had no history of violent or dangerous behavior. He has a good job, a promising future, and makes valuable contributions to his community. He was petitioning for the right to see his children at Christmas and in the summers. The mother, not wanting to give the father this "right," found all sorts of ways to infantalize him in the process. The most egregious example was to tack on a laundry list of rules: e.g. you must always use car seats, you must allow the children to call the other parent, you must not drink to excess, you must keep them on the same sleeping and eating schedule ad infinitum. This laundry list of rules struck me as precisely what was primarily objectionable about the Comstock Laws before Roe: they enshrine the incompetence and moral weakness of the targeted group in the law; they infantalize.

To legislate what is a matter of good judgment is to suggest that the class for whom these laws apply are incapable of making good decisions independently from the state.

Abortion will always be a moral debate in this country and there will always be those who oppose it as the worst of sins. Abortion, moreover, will always be a complicated moral decision with no clear or absolutist answer. The protection of Roe is crucial for affirming a woman's innate ability to make this difficult moral decision on their own, without the imposition of those who are the least familiar with the details and contours of her life. Roe affirms that abortion is a woman's right in so far as she is the master of her body. It does more than just allow her to choose to terminate a pregnancy if she is not ready to be a mother. It also prohibits physicians from giving her a C-section against her will or demanding she stay up on her feet for 9 months. Roe affirms every human being's right to bodily integrity.

So, in this vein, I am thankful for this 34th anniversary and will fight to see the 35th.