40 years on, we must uphold Roe v. Wade as a form of equal rights

In January 1973, when the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in America, I was in third grade. It was a mind-boggling time of change. Nixon was visiting China, then there was Watergate and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation. The Vietnam War raged on, and 11 Israeli athletes had been murdered in a terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics six months earlier. These events figured heavily in conversations around the family dinner table, especially on Sundays when my grandmother and uncle were with us.

The topic of Roe v. Wade never came up.

It’s understandable. Talking about sex or family planning was taboo in front of school-aged children, though we did hear about the Equal Rights Amendment. We don’t need the ERA, the grown-ups said. Women don’t understand what they’ll be giving up. Men will stop holding the door open for them, and for what? Everything is already about as equal as it’s going to get. Wasn’t Golda Meir the Prime Minister of Israel?

Mostly, I internalized my family’s attitudes. I also fretted over the thought of serving in the army, as it was said would happen if the ERA should be ratified. Still, seeing women at school and in the store wearing ERA buttons, I understood that it was a big deal. There were also the buttons with sinister wire hangers and I shut my mind to those images. People wearing them were trying to make others uncomfortable, which wasn’t nice, and by the time I learned the hanger’s meaning, I was in college.

Thinking back on it, I have to wonder if the ERA was a stand-in for the Roe v. Wade discussion. It didn’t need to be said at home that a well-raised Jewish girl wasn’t going to need to seek an abortion, and sex education at school was a fresh controversy during my middle school years, too. Did my grandmothers ever seek to terminate a pregnancy, risky though that was in the time before Roe v. Wade? That was and should be their private business, and I will never know.

When I began college, my university had been admitting women as undergraduates for less than 15 years, but the campus felt as if it had always been coed. The young men I knew would go on to become the “sensitive men of the ’80s,” believing in our right to be there as much as we did. We identified as feminists and learned more about the socio-economic aspects of the class and gender struggle under the surface. Even if the conservative old alums were unhappy, they must have known there would be no turning back.

I feel certain that this country will not abandon its commitment to women’s rights and the ideal of an equal society, despite the ugly rhetoric during the last election and a disturbing upsurge of younger women supporting anti-choice candidates. As it became clear on election night, former Rep. Todd Akin and Mitt Romney running mate Paul Ryan and their ilk did not speak for the majority of Americans. Still, the increase of insidious tactics employed by religiously motivated opponents of Roe v. Wade to balloon costs, ration care and deny access to procedures must be exposed and countered.

It’s hard to believe that time has not tempered the acrimony or softened the debate. I now have a 10-year-old daughter who is still too young to hear about abortion and grapple with its moral implications, but we do discuss the importance of equality and religious liberty with her now. By keeping the channels of communication open, the adults in her life hope to foster the tools she will need for strength, compassion and confidence in a complex world.

The Roe v. Wade decision upheld every woman’s right to make her own decision about abortion based on her right to privacy. It also meant more than that, as it asserted our equal footing with our male counterparts. While I won’t try to summarize all the issues here, the National Council of Jewish Women has assembled a fact sheet detailing our position: Restrictions on access to abortion endanger women’s health, restrict women’s rights and erode religious freedom. Go to www.bit.ly/Wu6vpv to download it.

Sadly, attacks on Roe v. Wade and on privacy have continued unabated for these four decades, but we must move ahead with faith in ourselves and the conviction of our beliefs. This Saturday, Jan. 26, from 10 a.m. to noon, please join NCJW San Francisco for “A Celebration of Women, Life and Liberty: 40 Years of Roe vs. Wade,” at Justin Herman Plaza near the San Francisco Ferry Building. For more information see oursilverribbon.org.


Janice Friedman Prudhomme is the executive director of the San Francisco section of the National Council of Jewish Women.