THIRTY-five years. I'm old enough to remember back-alley abortions, in particular a young girl who stumbled down the stairs at my girlfriend's house in 1971, screaming. My girlfriend's mother, a staunch liberal Christian, had arranged the operation, and my girlfriend was the only one who'd known she was there, or who she was. I remember thinking about her when I heard about the Roe decision a couple years later, and hoping she'd never go through it again, legal or no.
As an anniversary, Roe seems to me to be a day for somber reflection, not in the form of a meditation on the "moral" issue of abortion, but on the corrupt manipulation of our public discourse, from the "Thanks for watching" card I got in response to asking the old MacNeil-Lehrer Report, circa 1976, what standing a Catholic priest had that put him on their panel discussion, through Professor Newt Gingrich telling Stephen Ambrose that anyone performing an abortion in the 19th century would have been tried for murder (and getting away with it), to Justice Kennedy's bizarre impersonation of a B-movie backwoods Family Court judge. The public issue has always been phrased as a question of "moral values", of "when Life begins", or the "rights of the Unborn", despite the fact that opposition to reproductive rights has always been a minority opinion in the decades since Roe. We might ask here if the reader was taken aback momentarily by the peculiar circumlocution "Unborn", or whether it's become enough of a commonplace that we zoom right by. How much of our debate concerns a "Right to Life" which is not even properly a term of the debate (or, reversed, occupies the center of a very different space: what is a woman's right to her own life?). Framing the issue as "choice" arose only after the buzzwords of the anti-rights crowd had completely shaped the public debate. (How many times have you heard about "partial birth abortion"? Can you, without looking, give the proper term for the procedure?)
But it's not about "choice", it's about rights, a proposition which has never been given fair hearing. Roe came precisely at the time when the television networks (still the public's #1 source for news, but so much more so then) were busy caving in to Nixon's Press paranoia and Agnew's delivery of Bill Safir(e)'s alliterative onanism. In the interests of "fairness" the minority opinions of the Right were not just aired (as they always had been), but treated with kid gloves. Cassocked Right to Lifers were never asked to denounce contraception as murder, a stance which would have split the movement and might have drastically changed where it stands today. Birth control didn't peek out of the closet until the Bush administration neared the summit of Mt. Hubris. One never hears the anti-choice advocate asked to give a simple answer to the basic question of who controls a woman's body, she or the State, of what will stop back alley surgeries, of how they can call abortion "murder" while denying that woman who have them will be tried for a capital crime.
Instead it's a thirty-five year history of harassment--to put it nicely--of citizens trying to exercise a Constitutional right, in part because Roe is never presented as such. Imagine a national effort to scream in the ears of African-Americans between the doors of their vehicles and those of the polling place. Imagine a "Voting Crisis Center" set up down the block designed to trap unsuspecting voters into casting worthless ballots. Imagine an interstate terror ring being ignored by the FBI for the duration of three presidential terms.
Okay, it ain't that hard to imagine. I'm from Indiana; I have to show my driver's license now to vote, to prevent "fraud" no one's ever demonstrated. But at least the challenge to that law gets reported on something like its merits; at least reports of voter intimidation aren't covered as differences of opinion. The harassment of women seeking their right to a medical termination of pregnancy is attacked everywhere with impunity. We're reminded by the juxtaposition of the holiday that for the better part of a decade after Brown public schools across the South were simply closed, rather than comply. Much the same has occurred for thirty-five years of Roe, much of it achieved by physical coercion, yet somehow this is treated as part of an ongoing national debate, and not as a source of ongoing national shame.