It’s been almost 50 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade, holding that women have the right to decide whether or not to have an abortion. We’re now living through the culmination of decades of efforts to use the states and the courts to roll back those rights for some Americans.
A lot has changed in 50 years. The percentage of women in the workforce has quadrupled. In 1973, the year Roe was decided, there were only 16 women in the U.S. House of Representatives and zero in the Senate — today, we number 143 across both houses of Congress. Since 1973, we’ve inaugurated our first Black president, our first female vice president; and we continue to be led by the first female Speaker of the House.
Here’s what hasn’t changed since 1973: the Constitution and the legal precedent. Courts have, time and time again, ruled that pre-viability bans on abortion are unconstitutional.
What also hasn’t changed: a minority of Americans who oppose abortion, and their allies who continue to exploit the issue for political gain, have single-mindedly attempted to undercut, restrict, or eliminate abortion access — particularly for the most marginalized.
With a recent slate of extremist state laws that fly directly in the face of legal precedent and protections, 2021 has already become the worst year on record for abortion restrictions. And then came Texas where a ludicrous scheme of delegating enforcement to private citizens by offering $10,000 bounties to those who report friends, family, and others seeking abortion care. What Texas has done, in the words of the U.S. Department of Justice, created “an unprecedented scheme that seeks to deny women and providers the ability to challenge S.B. 8 in federal court.”
It’s only a matter of time before other states, with Republican legislatures and governors determined to similarly restrict women’s right to access abortion care, follow suit. Make no mistake: these attacks will eventually affect all people seeking an abortion. Organizations working on the ground in many of these states have already sounded the alarm that we are at real risk of creating “two Americas,” where abortion is fully legal in some states, and fully outlawed in others.
These bans fall hardest on the people who already face significant barriers to accessing care — including low-income people, people of color, and people who don’t have the money to overcome the restrictions imposed by their state.
While there are some Texans who can afford to fly to other states for care, take paid leave from work, and cover the significant costs associated with a medical procedure — there are many who cannot. Those without such means — who are now being denied the ability to make their own health care decisions — are most likely to be women of color, who already face a slew of additional and unnecessary barriers to care.
Roe has stood for 50 years as a critical protection, but it does not — and cannot – guarantee that every person in this country who needs an abortion can access one. For years, we’ve seen how other restrictions — both socio-economic as well as legislative — can keep people from getting the care they need. One of the biggest ones is the Hyde Amendment — the federal policy that denies abortion coverage to Medicaid recipients, effectively blocking health insurance coverage for the procedure. This summer, we’re proud to say, we successfully fought to end this policy in the House, and we continue to work with our Senate counterpoints to finalize that critical change.
But now, with extreme state laws like the one enacted in Texas, and the Supreme Court poised to reconsider Roe itself, it’s clear that Congress must do more. Today, the House will vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), a bill to protect the right of all Americans to access abortion throughout the United States. When enacted, WHPA will provide a bulwark against medically unnecessary bans and restrictions, halting the cycle of increasingly extreme state bans.
With this vote, the House will take a critical step toward bringing US policy into line with US voters, a majority of whom say — in poll after poll — that abortion should be legal, and that Roe should be the law of the land. WHPA is that law, and, with the looming specter of Texas S.B. 8, the time to pass it is now.
Lee and DeGette are co-chairs of the Pro-Choice Caucus.