How did the words “life” and “choice” come to represent such polar opposites? Shouldn’t “life” or a “free life” be synonymous with the ability to make a “choice”? Despite being such a die-hard proponent of women’s rights, these terms have often confused me, so much so that when I am asked which camp I belong to, I have to pause and think for a moment before I passionately declare, “pro-choice!” However, I also see myself as “pro-life” of every woman whose life is changed forever by her ability to choose whether she wants to give birth or not. Hence, my confusion. So, this whole politicized debate about the terminology with which we refer to the fight over abortion rights is not something I entirely disagree with, albeit for different reasons. One thing I am sure about is that whatever term we choose to use, it should not distract us from what is really important, and that is, regardless of what we call this fight, it is a fight nonetheless, and every day, scores of women in the United States are faced with this life-changing decision. Although Roe v. Wade legalized abortion 40 years ago, women in the United States are still disadvantaged when it comes to exercising their right to choose.
The Guttmacher Institute came out with an interesting policy brief,“Abortion Policy in the Absence of Roe,” highlighting what abortion laws would look like in states in the event that Roe were to be overturned. The report is alarming. Twenty states currently possess laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion. Of these states, four have laws that automatically ban abortion if Roe were to be overturned; 13 states would retain their unenforced, pre-Roe abortion bans; and 7 have laws that express their intent to restrict the right to legal abortion to the maximum extent permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the absence of Roe. Only seven states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, and Washington—have laws that protect the right to choose abortion prior to viability or when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman. Come what may, we cannot and must not let this overturn happen.
But how about the current state of affairs? Today and in this moment, are women truly free to choose in the United States? Although by the age of 45, about half of American women will have an unintended pregnancy, 87% of counties lack an abortion provider and 35% of women live in those counties requiring some women seeking an abortion to have to travel 50 miles or more to obtain an abortion. In 2012 alone, 43 abortion restrictions were enacted in 19 states. Insurance bans, biased counseling, parental consent requirements, waiting periods, and unnecessary ultrasounds are all barriers to women exercising their right to choose (Guttmacher Institute, 2012).
I work with an organization that upholds the right to choose for all adolescents. Healthy Teen Network envisions a national community where all adolescents and young adults, including teen parents, are supported and empowered to lead healthy sexual, reproductive, and family lives. We believe both male and female adolescents and young adults, including teen parents, given appropriate, accurate, and evidence-based comprehensive education, are capable of and responsible for making informed decisions about sexuality, pregnancy, and parenting. Furthermore, all adolescents and young adults, including teen parents, deserve access to contraceptive services, and if pregnant, to full options counseling and services. By supporting full options counseling, Healthy Teen Network paves the way for adolescents and young adults to exercise their right to choose and thereby take charge of their lives.
Personally, I am pro-liberty, pro-equality, and pro-justice. I believe that to give or not to give birth should be a woman’s personal, private decision. Uphold Roe, repeal Hyde, remove barriers and let us be free!
Mousumi Banikya-Leaseburg, MD, MPH, CPH is a Program Manager at Healthy Teen Network.