Roe v. Wade was 40 Years Ago: Thoughts & Memories from Carol Queen
I was in high school when the historic Supreme Court decision went down that made legal abortion possible in the United States.
It’s a bit difficult to describe to younger women what that period of time was like, because although abortion services have never been universally accessible, even after Roe, at least now they don’t make a woman who needs to terminate a pregnancy into a criminal. I was already sexually active, and in those days, growing up in a small Oregon town, I did not even have access to contraception. Only one of my partners was old enough to buy condoms; I never saw another young man who used them, until the ’80s and HIV prevention made them more available. The contraceptive strategy in my town was withdrawal — pulling out before ejaculation — and the boys might not have known it, but *I* knew how dicey a method that was.
Every time I had sex with someone, I literally knew my life could be turned upside-down, maybe even completely ruined, if I got pregnant. And I was one of the lucky ones, not only because I didn’t get pregnant, but because even if I had, my father probably wouldn’t have gotten violent; even so, I thought I’d have to run away if something like that were to happen, though in retrospect, my family would likely have stood by me. Still, I had friends in school who just disappeared — other kids’ whispers delivered the probably-true news that they’d “gotten in trouble” and they had to go away.
I wrote about this time in my life — losing my virginity, pre-Roe v. Wade — in a memoir essay for an amazing, powerful book called Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction (published in 2008 by Seven Stories Press, edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev).
So when I heard that the women’s health movement had scored this judicial success, it felt to me that the game had changed. In real life, in my life, the issues and the hazards were still exactly the same. I still couldn’t get to a doctor, and if I could, I was still too young to get contraception without my parents’ permission. (I didn’t get access to birth control until I went to college and could go to the student health center). It would still potentially get me incarcerated in juvenile hall if I were found to be sexually active. It would be almost as hard to get an abortion if I needed one, because of how remote our town was, in such a conservative part of Oregon.
But if I did need one, and found my way to services somewhere — Eugene, probably, would have been the closest place to go — I would no longer be a criminal, and neither would my doctor. And somehow, that was huge. Something really big, really important, shifted in the culture 40 years ago today.
But the implications of Roe v. Wade extended so much farther than just access to abortion services. I understand why this is a controversial thing to some people. I understand why, when given an actual choice, some people see only one aspect of that choice as legitimate. I don’t understand why the actual plight of a woman with few or no real choices seems of so little importance to so many of these people, or the plight of a scared girl. The way the circumstances of the actual woman involved is given so little weight by so many anti-Roe activists really chills me — we have heard so much political rhetoric just this year about women and our sexuality (from contraception to abortion access to rape to slut-shaming) that it makes me newly aware that the culture hasn’t in fact changed all that much because of Roe v. Wade — the underlying beliefs that made it controversial then are still alive, and when you get right down to it, those beliefs eat away at the safety of women. These beliefs are not only about notions like “the sanctity of life.”
The importance of this case for me now, and then, doesn’t really have to do with abortion, you see. It has to do with sexuality, and whether women have equal rights to be sexual people: to be heterosexually active when they choose to, on a level playing field; to explore or express other sexual desires too, like same-sex relationships, access to sex toys, freedom to choose sexual partners, and all the other kinds of erotic possibility that have historically been accessed more easily by men.
Because one huge cultural impact of Roe v. Wade was that for women, sex now needed to be just a little less frightening. The meaning of (and necessity for) preserving virginity shifted; one of the most serious dangers inherent in being a sexually active woman had now been addressed (and not just the danger of an illegal abortion, bad as that was, but also the danger inherent in being pregnant and giving birth).
Would the women’s sex-positive movement have occurred without Roe v. Wade?
I don’t think so — even access to sex toys, which seems on the surface to have nothing to do with pregnancy and abortion, was pioneered for women first by a family-planning activist (in Germany, by Beate Uhse — we don’t hear too much about her in the US, but she’s a foremother of sorts to Good Vibrations and all the other sex toy stores founded by women). And this is a good time to remember another important 40th anniversary — that of Our Bodies Ourselves, which is so often associated with the reproductive rights movement that gave us Roe v. Wade — but was an equally important tome when it came to giving us information about lesbian relationships, clitoral orgasms, sexually transmitted conditions, and the many other elements that came with women’s movement toward sexual freedom. Our Bodies, Ourselves was sex education in the most holistic and broad way, and every chapter made it clear that we women were not only changing history with our sexual choices — but also that we really did have choice, so many choices.
It’s not a coincidence that one of the 1980s’ best and smartest books about women’s sexuality — Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole Vance — took the title it did. There still is danger inherent in sexuality for women, but one danger sex-positive feminists realized we had to fight was the greater level of shame and lack of access to information and support for women who wanted to be fully sexual beings. Today’s Slutwalk movement is a child of this activism; so is the fact that today and tomorrow’s sex educators are overwhelmingly women. And forty years down the road from Roe v. Wade, for women to have safe access to sexual pleasure and choices is one more cultural change — and continued struggle — also linked to that historic decision.
[Editor’s note: the featured image for this post is an AP Press photograph which appears in a gallery of Roe v Wade images in this Daily Beast Gallery.]