On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that would polarize the country, a case with a name that became instantly synonymous with the issue it tackled. Roe v. Wade, in a vote of 7-2, legalized abortion.
Today, 40 years later, the ruling permeates everything from politics and religion to medicine and women’s rights. It has been celebrated by “pro-choice” activists and condemned by “pro-life” groups. And four decades later, the debate rages on, begging the question: what does this mean for the next 40 years?
“It appears that it’s settled law, and I certainly hope that it’s settled law,” said Pam Sutherland, the vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “They’re not going to prevail in the long run on a national level. People don’t want that interference.”
However, Planned Parenthood is moving to tone down the rhetoric. The organization launched a campaign last week to move beyond the labels of "pro-choice" and "pro-life," saying that those labels are too contentious and limit discussion on such a complex issue.
A poll released Tuesday supports Sutherland’s position. The survey, conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, found that about 70 percent of 1,000 people polled support upholding Roe v. Wade.
“The American public spoke pretty loudly about how they felt about people who didn’t respect their decision-making” on reproductive rights, Sutherland said. She referenced positions of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former Reps. Todd Akin (R-Miss.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), all of whom expressed strong anti-abortion stances during last year’s election.
Nevertheless, Sutherland said that she is concerned about efforts — successful in several states — to chip away at Roe v. Wade, whether by implementing waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds or parental consent requirements. Also concerning, Sutherland added, is the propagation of “junk science,” such as unsupported claims that abortion can cause breast cancer and mental health issues.
But Sutherland said she feels confident about the future of reproductive rights.
“I think there is a new age, especially the millenials, saying, ‘Please stay out of our business,’” she said. “I think in the future we’re going to see a stronger public outcry.”
Ann Scheidler, the vice president of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, said she thinks the public opinion pendulum will swing, however.
“People are much more uncomfortable with abortion now than they were back in the ‘70s,” Scheidler said.
Scheidler, who helped start the organization in 1980, compared the current support of abortion to the country’s former acceptance of slavery. That “was part of the culture and the vast majority of people didn’t think anything was wrong with it,” she said.
She said that fetuses “are just as valuable as children." She also stressed the need for a culture shift and more support for pregnant women. “We'd like to have a culture in which all children were respected and welcomed."
Before the age of 45, close to one-third of American women will have had an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches reproductive health. In 2008, the organization found that the Illinois abortion rate of 20 percent was slightly higher than the national average of 19 percent. The number of Illinois counties lacking an abortion provider is also higher than the national figure, at 92 percent to the country’s 87 percent.
Dr. Debra Stulberg, an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, also provides abortion services through an outside clinic. She stressed the impact of Roe v. Wade.
“I think it was really important to women,” Stulberg said of Roe v. Wade. “I think it continues to be really important to women and really important to all of us, to having healthy families, to people having that self-determination in their lives.”
Although she lamented how anti-abortion groups have “made access to a lot of women’s health care very restricted and at times almost impossible,” Stulberg said this 40th anniversary — following the second inauguration of President Obama, who supports abortion rights — is one to remember.
“We’ve provided women’s health care, we’ve taken care of women who need services, we’ve taken care of their families, we’ve made this procedure safe and reliable,” she said. “And those are all huge successes to be celebrated.”
Still, Scheidler said, the discussion isn’t over.
“We’ve managed to keep it a hot topic,” she said. “It was supposed to be settled 40 years ago.”