Almost 50 years later, the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance

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Almost 50 years later, the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance
© Greg Nash Almost 50 years later, the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance

Today marks 49 years since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

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Every year on Jan. 22, we pause to remember the long, hard fight for reproductive rights in the United States, which also intertwined with advances in women’s rights, racial justice and economic justice. The fight that started over half a century ago continues to this day; Sarah Weddington, the Texas lawyer who won Roe v. Wade at the U.S. Supreme Court, passed away just four weeks ago, but her legacy will live on forever in the people and families who have received safe, legal abortion care since 1973.

Yet we’re constantly reminded that Roe was and will never be enough.

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In 2021, anti-abortion lawmakers, emboldened by the Supreme Court’s new 6-3 conservative majority, passed a record-breaking 106 abortion restrictions, bringing the total since Roe to 1,336. Those lawmakers were right about the Supreme Court, which refused to deliver justice by leaving Texas’s Senate Bill 8 (S.B. 8) in full force – even though they had the power to block it twice. The cruelty of their inaction reverberates throughout the country and reminds us that our rights are not guaranteed.

In June, they’re expected to release a decision in the most serious challenge to Roe v. Wade in decades: a 15-week ban in Mississippi. Abortion advocates, providers and patients are not hopeful. The case is already fueling the toppling of abortion rights in 2022. If Roe falls, more than half the states in the country are poised to ban abortion outright. And many states are expected to quickly introduce copycat legislation that mimics SB 8.

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We’re increasingly living in two different Americas, where abortion access depends on where you live, your race, your income, and your health insurance. The United States is one of the most powerful countries in the world, yet our human rights are sliding backwards.

These are uncertain times. Not just to independent abortion providers like Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, but to all people who want, need and deserve power and autonomy over their own bodies, lives, and futures. Today, independent clinics collectively provide care to three out of every five patients who receive an abortion in the United States. As more anti-abortion legislation becomes law, it becomes harder and harder for these independent providers to keep their doors open. Hundreds of clinics have been forced to close in the last 10 years and continue to close at an alarming rate.

Roe has been the driving force behind why we are able to open freestanding abortion clinics in states hostile to abortion rights in the first place. Even though we recognize it’s the floor and not the ceiling, it’s still a foundation. It might not be all we imagined in a legal framework, but if Roe is struck down, access to safe abortion will be completely decimated and the already fragile landscape of abortion care in the Midwest and South could take years – or possibly decades – to rebuild.

Our founders designed the three branches of government for a reason. In these times, we can no longer rely on the courts to deliver justice. I call on the executive branch and Congress to do what’s right and pass the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA). If we can’t rely on the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutional right to abortion, this federal legislation is our only hope.

The WHPA would create a statutory right for health care providers to provide abortion care, and a corresponding right for their patients to receive that care, free from medically unnecessary restrictions that single out abortion and impede access. New polling shows that a solid majority of voters support the WHPA, which directly aligns with the beliefs of the majority of Americans who want abortion to remain safe, legal and accessible.

In September 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives took a critical step in protecting abortion access with a historic vote to pass the WHPA. Now, I’m urging the Senate to do the same. The right to abortion is meaningless if all Americans can’t access it, or only those with the means to get the care they need. That’s what will happen if Roe falls and more states pass inhumane bans like S.B. 8.

With the WHPA in place, we can start to reimagine Roe and create a country where abortion providers and patients are treated with dignity and respect, not shame and stigma. It’s time to move beyond Roe and guarantee our human right to bodily autonomy in the U.S. once and for all. Let’s do it for Sarah Weddington.

Amy Hagstrom Miller is president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.

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