Shifting sands

Pill pressure and reproductive rights
By JEFF INGLIS  |  May 3, 2006

Reproductive rights are a moving target. No matter what decisions are made by the courts, Congress, or state legislators, birth control and reproductive rights are at the nexus of public policy, individual privacy, health-care regulations, ethical arguments, religious beliefs, and morality. As individual and societal interpretations of and positions on all of those elements shift with time, so will the laws, guidelines, rules, and social “acceptability” of a spectrum of options available to women, and more recently, men, regarding their rights and obligations, their desire and ability to bear children — or not — in the ways they want.

Thirty-five years ago, in 1971, the US Supreme Court issued its first-ever ruling on the subject of abortion, upholding a District of Columbia law allowing an abortion to protect the life or health of the mother. The court’s ruling in the case, United States v. Vuitch, held not only that abortions were legal, but that the word “health” in the law “includes psychological as well as physical well-being,” effectively opening a door to any woman who wanted to have an abortion.

But the fact that most states outlawed abortion except in cases where the mother’s life was at risk — even if her health would have been damaged in some way, so long as she survived — made the Vuitch decision a key component in the Roe v. Wade arguments and decisions. The ruling, handed down just eight months before the December 1971 first round of oral arguments for Roe, was the subject of much discussion between the attorneys and the justices, and figured prominently in both rounds of oral arguments for Roe (the second held in October 1972). (Vuitch was, in fact, the subject of the first question from the bench in the second round, according to official transcripts of the event.) And the Vuitch ruling draws together the legal framework for arguing that a fetus is not a “person,” as intended in the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits depriving a person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

That argument was later expanded upon in the Roe decision, in which the Court noted that all of the references to “person” in the Constitution are to people who have been born already — not to the unborn.

At this very moment in the decision, however, just as the fetus-as-non-person argument was hitting its stride, its one weakness is also revealed: if a fetus were somehow to be included in the legal definition of “person,” its right to life would be guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Until Roe, however, women had to travel from one state to another to find places to procure abortions legally. Now, with the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Associate Justice Samuel Alito widely expected to result in a reversal of Roe, and with Planned Parenthood conducting a “Save Roe” campaign and the National Pro-Life Alliance sending mailers around the nation seeking donations to “reverse Roe v. Wade,” women are seeking secure ways to exercise control over their bodies, their lives, and their futures.

1  |  2  |   next >
  Topics: News Features , Politics, Health and Fitness, Domestic Policy,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
More Information

More on this story:

What Are They? What's in Them? What Do They Do? By Jeff Inglis.

Seeking Help?

Herbal Options By Amy Martin.

Three women share their stories:

Controlling Birth by Amy Martin.

The Pill + Me by Caitlin Shetterly.

Don't Mistake It for Easy by Sonya Tomlinson.

 

ARTICLES BY JEFF INGLIS
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   PORTLAND VS. HER PEOPLE  |  March 19, 2014
    This city, which all agree is lucky to have so many options, has leaders who do not behave as if they have any choice at all. To the frustration of the citzenry, the City Council and the Planning Board often run off with the first partner who asks for a dance.
  •   LEARNING FROM FAIRPOINT'S DISASTERS  |  March 06, 2014
    Two bills before the Maine legislature seek to pry lessons from the hard time FairPoint has had taking over the former Verizon landline operations in Maine since 2009.
  •   BEYOND POLITICS  |  March 06, 2014
    Today’s US media environment might well seem extremely gay-friendly.
  •   THE ONLINE CHEF  |  February 27, 2014
    It turns out that home-cooked scallops are crazy-easy, super-delicious, and far cheaper than if you get them when you’re dining out.
  •   RISE OF THE E-CURRENCIES  |  February 12, 2014
    Plus: Is Rhode Island ready for Bitcoin? Two perspectives

 See all articles by: JEFF INGLIS