What Was Life Like Before Roe v. Wade?


Recently, I lent a friend my copy of Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks. When he was done reading it, he told me that it made him “appreciate the importance of reproductive rights.” Obviously I’m happy to hear it, but there was also a part of me that was thinking, "What, so you didn’t appreciate them before?" It was almost as if he hadn’t previously made any connection between modern feminism and the struggle for reproductive freedom, which was a hard thing for me to fathom.

Then yesterday I saw this Tweet from Lila Rose, co-opter of feminism and founder of Live Action, an anti-choice activist organization that occasionally publishes doctored videos in an effort to discredit Planned Parenthood. 

@LilaGraceRose: The #abortion culture has hijacked feminism. But feminism and abortion have nothing in common.

The notion of ‘pro-life feminism’ has always been a confusing one for me because feminism has always been so fundamentally rooted in expanding autonomy and choice for women. In the words of bell hooks, “The anti-choice movement is fundamentally anti-feminist. While it is possible for women to individually choose never to have an abortion, allegiance to feminist politics means that they still are pro-choice, that they support the right of females who need abortions to choose whether or not to have them.”

If my friend and Lila Rose are any indicator, it seems like a growing segment of our generation doesn’t understand this. So today, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I think it’s worth reiterating one more time why, exactly, abortion rights are such an integral part of modern feminism and why, 40 years later, this struggle is more important than ever.

Before Roe, women lived in constant fear of their own bodies and the devastating life consequences too-often wrought by unintended pregnancies and unsafe back-alley abortions. Dr. Jane Hodgson, a noted women’s health activist and abortion provider, lamented the fact that so many seem to have forgotten what life was like in the days before Roe. In her words:

Before 1973, single women who got pregnant were fired from their jobs. Younger ones were sent to maternity homes for unwed mothers and their children were put up for adoption. Married women who got pregnant were forced to carry pregnancies to term regardless of their circumstances — even if they had so many children that they couldn't afford to feed another one; even if they had metastasized cancer; even if their fetuses couldn't live outside the womb because these fetuses had developed without a heart or brain.

If this reality sounds as unimaginable to you as it does to me, thank our grandmas’ generation. Their efforts in the struggle for women’s reproductive freedom so revolutionized the landscape of opportunity for women that we generally can’t help but take it for granted. For some of us, the pre-Roe reality is so far removed from our lives that it’s too easy to forget why it still matters.

It does matter, though. Every day, anti-choice politicians whittle away at our hard-fought right to choose. Increasingly, poor women and women of color are effectively denied reproductive choice because of access restrictions, such as the Hyde Amendment and TRAP laws. And the worst part of it all is this: Anti-choice politics aren’t even driven by concern for potential human life — if it were, you wouldn’t see those same politicians inveighing against comprehensive sex education and family planning, chipping away at the social safety net, and advocating the death penalty. No, at its core, the anti-choice movement seeks to control and subordinate women by returning them to their pre-feminist status, when women had no choice.

Twentieth century feminists worked too hard for us to backslide. Today, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that fundamentally changed what it means to be a woman in this country, we need to reinvigorate and revive the activist momentum that won us these rights in the first place.