Happy birthday, Roe
Today is the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, legalizing abortion. In commemoration, I’ve been reading Behind Every Choice is a Story, by Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood – a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I was drawn to it not only because Feldt is an inspiring activist (who happens to be Jewish), but also because the title speaks to me. As a historian, I deal in stories. That’s what history is, after all. We often mistakenly think that history is about dates and facts (i.e. boring and impersonal) when it’s actually about stories and the drama of everyday life.
We lose that awareness of the importance and power of stories sometimes, especially when we get caught up in politics and ideology, as the abortion debate so often does. So Feldt was very smart to organize her book – which is, of course, an argument for the absolute necessity of reproductive rights – around individual stories, captured in letters from people of all ages, describing the transformative impact of reproductive choice on their lives.
Feldt isn’t the first reproductive rights activist to write this kind of book. Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights pioneer, compiled a similar collection of letters to illustrate the need for access to birth control in Motherhood in Bondage, published in 1928. Sanger used stories to point out the suffering of children and families when reproduction could not be controlled, and to construct an argument for the morality of birth control and abortion. She traced her own activism back to the story of Sadie Sachs, a Jewish immigrant she encountered in her work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side. Sanger treated Sadie after a self-induced abortion. When she begged her doctor for information on how to avoid more pregnancies, he glibly told her, “Make your husband sleep on the roof.” Sanger felt powerless, lacking information to share with the woman. Two months later, Sanger was called back to Sadie’s bedside, but this time was unable to save her from death due to another abortion.
Sanger’s book is filled with letters from women who were writing to her out of desperation, hoping that she could provide them with some information that would prevent further pregnancies and enable them to take control of their lives.
Feldt’s book, by contrast, contains letters from women, men, and girls, doctors, parents, and children, who had the freedom to make choices – to prevent pregnancy, have an abortion, or have a child. She weaves her own story – pregnant and married at 15, a mother of three at 20, sterilized and a burgeoning reproductive rights activist in her 30s – as case in point. The most apparent difference between Feldt’s and Sanger’s books is, of course, the difference that 80 years – and the legalization of birth control and abortion – make.
Of course, the issue of reproductive rights isn’t only about individual stories. It has huge social repercussions in terms of poverty, health, and education. But part of what the individual stories do is to remind us that when we’re talking about respect for life, there are many lives to consider – not only the life of the fetus. (That’s why I liked the movie Juno; despite its negative portrayal of the abortion option and unrealistic depiction of teenage pregnancy, it poignantly demonstrates the lives and emotions involved in these decisions.)
Feldt is very clear that choice is not a panacea. She writes, “Don’t people understand that when faced with an unintended pregnancy, or a situation like I found myself in at thirty-two, when I chose sterilization, all the choices available are imperfect and fraught with pain?” And this is true for those who are lucky enough to have the choices, which are becoming less and less accessible with every restriction our government puts in place.
Which brings us to the bittersweetness of this 35th anniversary – at once a celebration of all the ways that Roe v. Wade has given women more control over their lives, and a warning that we can never take this right for granted.