In January of 1973 — after years of delays, arguments and questioning from an all-male Supreme Court — the world changed for women. Up until then, women didn’t have the right or freedom to control their bodies, lives or future. Up until then, a woman’s ability to access a safe abortion depended on how much money she had, who she was and where she lived. And for some women, it still hasn’t changed. But the fact remains: the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade was a resounding victory: for women, for their families and for the doctors who had been previously barred from providing the full spectrum of reproductive health care — including safe and legal abortion. Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” The year 1973 gave us an answer.
As we approach the 46th anniversary of Roe, I’d love to say that the battle over women’s bodies and health care is over. I’d love to say that abortion care is no longer questioned as anything other than the standard medical care that it is. But we all know that this isn’t the case. In the nearly five decades since Roe was decided, politicians have slowly chipped away at the constitutional right to abortion by passing laws that have no basis in medicine, like forced ultrasounds and sham TRAP laws.
Since 2011, over 400 bills have been signed into law that directly restrict abortion access. Opposed by doctors, nurses and public health leaders, these barriers to care disproportionately impact women of color, women in rural areas and those with low incomes. With Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, 25 million — one in three women of reproductive age — could soon be living in states where abortion is outlawed. We are dangerously close to a world that looks much like the one before Roe was decided in 1973.
As a doctor, I’ve seen women’s health care siloed, stigmatized and attacked like no other aspect of health care. I’ve seen the cost of abortion restrictions firsthand. The cost is women’s lives.
In the historic 2018 midterm elections, the American people spoke with their votes, saying loud and clear: we want more health care, not less. We cast our ballots in overwhelming numbers for candidates who proudly support reproductive health across every level of government. As a result, there are a record number of women, including a record number of women of color, seated in the 116th United States Congress. Seven states now have newly formed trifectas in leadership that are supportive of women’s health — from the governor’s office to the state house and senate. Given this new political reality, we have an unprecedented opportunity to enact policies that protect and expand access to reproductive health care, including abortion.
How are we going to seize this moment? How are we going to show up for the patients who need us most? How are we going to protect the fundamental right to health care in this country?
At Planned Parenthood, along with our partners, we’re hard at work on the answers. A key part rests with the states. Last year, state legislatures introduced more positive health care policies than ones that roll back care. This year, advocates in Oregon are working on implementing the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which was passed last year and ensures all aspects of reproductive health care are covered by insurance. And this was before the wave of newly elected reproductive rights and health care champions took office this month. In New York, champions began 2019 by announcing plans to pass the Reproductive Health Act, which would codify the protections of Roe in state law. Rhode Island is also poised to pass a similar measure. All in all, we will continue fighting nationwide to aggressively push policies that expand and protect access to reproductive health care as part of the 2019 state legislative sessions.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Americans have a pro-reproductive health care majority in the House. The 116th Congress must provide needed oversight to the Trump administration’s anti-women, anti-science policies and advance proactive legislation to protect reproductive rights. More than ever, the House of Representatives looks like the America it’s meant to serve — racially diverse, culturally varied and overwhelmingly in support of access to reproductive health care. Now is the time to double down on our commitment to health care access for all — to act with voters’ intentions in mind and patients’ best interests at heart.
As a physician, I consider it my moral imperative to advocate for policies that protect my patients’ access to care. When politicians attack health care, those hurt most are people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, young people and those living in rural areas — patients who already experience unjust barriers to care due to decades of systemic inequity and discriminatory policy. And, while the recent spate of positive legislation is encouraging, we don’t expect the attacks to stop. Already in the past few weeks, politicians in Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and Oklahoma have pushed for unconstitutional abortion bans. All have been clearly aimed to reverse Roe.
Forty-six years after the landmark Roe decision, there is still so much work to be done. When I became a doctor, I took an oath to serve my patients, no matter what. That means providing honest, accurate information about their options and helping them determine the best path forward for their lives. That means treating the root cause of what ails them, and so often, that cause is lack of access to care. People don’t get sick just because of disease. They get sick because of failures in our system. The cost of bad public policy is people’s lives.
As president of Planned Parenthood, I pledge to fight with everything I have, working with our partners in elected office and beyond, to build a world where no one questions that abortion care is health care, reproductive health care is health care and health care is a fundamental human right.
Dr. Leana S. Wen is president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.