Roe v. Wade and Beyond: Ruth Rosen Responds

Graphic by Imp Kerr

On the day that Roe v. Wade was handed down, I felt a mixture of elation and panic. A new future loomed in which unwanted pregnancies would no longer send women to quacks, rushing them to hospitals with raging infections and perhaps to their deaths. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that many lives would be saved.

At the same time, I knew that this historic decision had started the culture wars, even though I didn’t have the language to explain my thoughts. As a young historian, I realized that the Supreme Court had given us abortion rights and what the Court gave, the Court could take away. Even more, I understood that we had not received this right through congressional legislation, which would have reflected a greater consensus among Americans. But I also knew that there had not been enough national conversation for legislation that would have legalized abortion, so a Court decision was the only way, at that time, that we could have gained reproductive rights.

And so I spent that day trying to peer into the future. My panic came from my realization that the country was polarized about everything Carole Joffe mentioned in “Roe v. Wade and Beyond,” including the role of women in modern society: their rights to sexual pleasure; economic independence and child care; and protection from battery, rape, and sexual harassment. Roe didn’t start the culture wars, but it was the engine that fueled what we have witnessed over the last forty years. It is the decision that has helped raise billions of dollars for a right-wing think tank industry and an anti-abortion industry. And most important, as Joffe wrote, it fundamentally transformed American political culture.

Who, in 1973, except a young anxious historian, would have thought that a politician’s views on abortion would become a litmus test for political candidacy? Who could have imagined that politicians like Ronald Reagan and Mitt Romney would change their views on abortion whenever they decided to stand for a new office?

These were the possibilities that ran through my mind that day. I didn’t speak them out loud because I was so happy that I thought I would never see another woman die from an unwanted pregnancy. But I saw the dark side too quickly to celebrate.

Let us also remember that on August 27, 1970, 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue in New York to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of woman’s suffrage. Our three demands were clear: legal abortion, universal child care, and equal pay with men. These, we felt, were the three preconditions for gender equality. Forty years later, abortion is as precarious as Joffe has ably documented. We have no universal child care. And women earn far less than men, even with the same education and for the same work.

Some may argue that abortion has consumed much of the energy that might have gone into the struggle for child care or equal pay. But that’s ahistorical and unrealistic thinking. The reality is that the women’s movement has had to defend the one right we won during out earliest years. And given the limited access to abortion providers, we haven’t really won reproductive rights for all women, especially for those in the middle of the country and for low-income and minority women.

In the end, the national debate over abortion is, of course, about whether a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body. It is also about women’s sexual freedom. The Pill—and abortion—ruptured the historic relationship between sex and reproduction. After that, nothing was ever the same.


Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, is Professor Emerita of History at UC-Davis and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movements at UC-Berkeley. Her most recent book is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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