Deborah Fritsch, president of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties Board of Directors, published an opinion piece in the San Diego Union Tribune on today's anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic ruling on privacy and women's reproductive rights.

Taking politics out of reproduction
by Deborah Fritsch

With the inauguration of President Barack Obama on Tuesday, our nation seems unified in the spirit of inclusiveness and hope, and the welcome absence of partisanship. Inspired by Obama's call for unity, now is the moment to move past the politics of divisiveness and reflexive reactions to new ideas. We will not know until we try whether we can heal the divides in this country, but certainly we should try.

On this, the 36th anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion, our country, sadly, is mired in an uncomfortable place where abortion has been deliberately framed as one of the most prominent political wedge issues. While well-meaning people on both sides of the issue may disagree, a life-altering personal medical decision should not be the political football of our times.

Of course, the abortion debate is not unique in the politicization of medicine. Stem cell research, treatment for AIDS patients, the global gag rule and President George W. Bush's foray into the Terri Schiavo case are and were emblematic of the politicization of medical decisions.

With abortion becoming a – or even the – litmus test issue of American politics, the human faces and deeply personal stories, the real-life events and critical factors that are weighed by women making the decision whether to continue a pregnancy have been lost. We know that women have abortions for many reasons – in cases of rape, incest or failed contraception, for economic, social or personal conditions and concerns, or in hopeless medical situations.

As reproductive rights have been compromised, as obtaining accurate sex education and contraceptives has become more difficult, the number of unintended pregnancies has risen, a consequence of a perfect storm of withheld, omitted or inaccurate information and a paternalistic political environment that removes a woman's control over her fertility and her health.

It is the right time to reverse this tide. We can do this, as we have before, by limiting government intrusion into our personal lives. To obtain a better future, each of us must be free to make profoundly personal decisions and act responsibly about our reproductive lives without unwarranted government influence. A government that respects the integrity of its people should interfere as little as possible and help ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make these decisions responsibly. Politics have no place in these decisions. Because when politics intrudes, humanity loses.

Even if we disagree on the issue of abortion, we can agree that preventing unwanted pregnancy reduces the number of abortions. President Clinton was right – we want abortion to be safe, legal and rare. Yet in recent years, it has become more difficult to receive medically accurate sex education and access to contraceptives, which leads to more unintended pregnancies.

Doctors can now refuse to prescribe, and pharmacists can refuse to fill a prescription for birth control methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If a medical provider is opposed even to birth control, she/he does not have to provide it. But such decisions are private, not political, as the Supreme Court observed in 1965 when it struck down a law that criminalized the prescription of birth control.

In speaking of the marital decision to create or to refrain from creating children, the court observed that the decision arises in a “relationship lying within the zone of privacy.” This “right of privacy,” the court observed, is “older than the Bill of Rights, older than our political parties.”

When we bring children into the world, we can all agree that we want to be sure that they will be loved, cared for, and have a future full of opportunity. This is a personal, private decision that should not be made by the on-duty pharmacist. It should be made by the people involved in the relationship.

Improved sex education, better access to doctors and pharmacists with the training to understand and respect women's reproductive health care needs, and better access to low-cost contraception would reduce the need for abortion. Politics should not govern women's reproductive health care. Those who want to reduce the number of abortions should insist that men and women have access to medically accurate information and contraception.

We have a choice: we can continue with the divisive politicization of abortion that has exploited our ambivalence and fears for political purposes. Or we can take this moment of opportunity and begin a new conversation, one that opens with the understanding that the decision to have a child – and the decision not to – is one that should be free from government intrusion. Those on both sides of this issue must work together to expand reproductive health education and services, allow women to control their own fertility, and, in the process, reduce the need for abortion.

San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 22, 2009,