It has been 42 years since the United States Supreme Court held in Roe vs. Wade that the right to decide whether to go forward with a pregnancy, prior to viability, belongs to a woman, in consultation with her doctors.
Forty-two years of marches and debates and occasional, horrible violence later, Roe remains the law of the land. But constitutional law is scant comfort when there is nowhere to get an abortion in your area — which, last time I checked, was true of more than 40 percent of the counties in the United States. The choice movement may have saved Roe in the courts, but on the streets, the access fight continues — sadly.
The politics of abortion have changed even more. For the first few decades after Roe was decided, abortion was, frankly, a problem for many Democrats. The polls were equivocal, the right to life movement was expanding everywhere, and Democrats were carefully phrasing their personal opposition to abortion notwithstanding the Roe decision.
These days, it's the Republicans who are squirming about abortion, and not very discreetly. They made all kinds of noise about voting on a bill on Thursday, Roe's anniversary, to ban all abortions after 20 weeks. Of course, that would be unconstitutional on its face under Roe, but that wasn't the reason the Republicans dropped the idea.
They dropped it because even some members of their own caucus wouldn't support a bill that would deny a rape victim an abortion unless she reported it to the police — even though rape is one of the most under-reported crimes.
Unable to pull together a majority to pass a symbolic unconstitutional view, the Republicans settled instead for having a meaningless vote on an old bill that bars public funding of abortion, a bill that has no chance of ever being signed by the president.
You might think, with all the problems we face, the House of Representatives would have better things to do than sit around having symbolic debates and passing symbolic bills, but frankly that's never stopped them, and it didn't stop them now. What did was the change in politics.
"There was a lot of discussion in our retreat (last week) about this, and some of the new people did not want to make this the first bill they voted on, because the millennials have a little bit of a different take on it," Republican Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida told the press. "But you will see it come back, because the American people agree with it two to one. It's a hideous practice. It needs to stop."
Sorry, Ted. The two-to-one number is meaningless. The question isn't whether you're for or against abortion; the question is who gets to decide — the woman, with the advice of her family, her doctor, her minister, or the government. Ask the question that way, and the government loses, hands down. It isn't just the millennials who think the government should keep its nose out of the gynecologist's office.
The millennials want to keep getting elected. The old timers seem bent on refighting the old battles. Forty-two years should be enough time to spend debating symbolic bills and litigating unconstitutional laws. The Republican bill doesn't help teen mothers. It doesn't address maternal health. It won't reduce infant mortality rates.
There is so much we could and should do that we all agree on. Let's take care of the wanted babies; let's help women have healthy babies; let's spend our energy figuring out how to help prevent teen pregnancy.
Let's talk about how we're going to educate these kids, which is a public responsibility, and leave the gynecologists and their patients alone. With so much to be done, and so much that we do agree on, lawmakers playing games with symbolic bills should be ashamed of themselves.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.