Women’s Equality and the Right to Choose

This op-ed is written by Deborah Fritsch, Vice President of the Board of Directors, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.

The race for the White House is in full swing. Come Election Day, a women’s right to choose will likely be on voters’ minds as candidates pull out the abortion card to cast aspersions on their opponents or stake a claim to a constituency. Some voters will vote for or against candidates because of their position on the issue. Not enough of us, however, will consider what is really at stake in the abortion question: women’s equality.

Roe v. Wade turns 35 today. With this anniversary, we mark not only 35 years of reproductive freedom, but 35 years of impressive gains in the fight for women’s equality.

These decades have witnessed important advances for many women. Thirty-five years ago, there were 15 women in Congress; only three had ever held the office of state governor. Today, 92 women sit in Congress, including the first Speaker; 26 women have served as governors; and in the current race for president, for the first time in our nation’s history, a woman candidate is one of the leading contenders for the nomination of a major political party.

The political arena has not been alone in this transformation. Women currently make up 57% of college students (up from 42% in 1970) and are obtaining advanced degrees in record numbers. In the mid-1970s, women made up only 16% of medical school graduates; today they constitute nearly 50%. Likewise, women holding science and engineering doctoral degrees have more than quadrupled since the late 1960s. And the ranks of female Fortune 500 CEOs have grown from 1 in 1973 to 12 in 2007.

The timing of these advances is not serendipitous. At the core of women’s equality is the ability to control whether and when we have children. The legalization of contraception in the 1960s and abortion in the 1970s fostered women’s ability to make important life decisions about themselves and their families. Clearly, the two are linked. The reality is that contraception reduces the need for abortions. No one prefers abortion to contraception.

This fact is not lost on the only two women ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor co-authored an opinion preserving Roe in 1992 that acknowledged, “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” And just last year, in a powerful dissent to a Supreme Court decision upholding the first-ever federal ban on certain abortion procedures, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passionately argued that the core of the right to abortion “center[s] on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”

Yet, as we mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the connection between reproductive rights and gender equality is being lost in the political wrangling over abortion. It is time to step back and reexamine the role access to birth control and abortion plays not only in opening up the classrooms, boardrooms and legislatures to women, but to ensuring women’s equality more broadly. It is time to refocus the conversation on fairness and opportunity so that we all make meaningful decisions about whether and when to bear children. The political, economic, and social life of our democracy depends on it.