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The Equality Factor

by Louise Melling and Sally T. Grant

As we mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the connection between reproductive rights and gender equality is lost in the political wrangling over abortion.
The race for the White House is in full swing. Come Election Day, abortion will likely be on voters’ minds as candidates pull out the abortion card to cast aspersions on their opponents or stake claim to a constituency. Some voters will vote for or against candidates because of their position on the issue. Few, however, will consider what is really at stake in the abortion question: women’s equality.

Roe v. Wade turns 35 this month. With this anniversary we mark not only 35 years of reproductive freedom, but 35 years of impressive gains in the fight for women’s equality.

Granted, these were not perfect years. Not all women have had equal access to reproductive health care: poor women, teens, and women living in rural communities have increasingly faced real obstacles because of government restrictions. Likewise, not all women have benefitted equally in the expansion of women’s access to higher education, better paying jobs, and other socio-economic gains. And as with the fight for reproductive freedom the struggle for women’s equality is far from over.

Nevertheless, these decades have witnessed important advances for many women. The numbers alone tell a significant piece of the story: Thirty-five years ago, there were 15 women in Congress; only 3 had ever held the office of state governor. Today, 92 women sit in Congress (including the first Madame Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a native of Baltimore); 26 women have served as governors; and in the current race for president, for the first time in our nation’s history, a woman candidate is one of the leading contenders for the nomination of a major political party.

The political arena has not been alone in this transformation. Women currently make up 57 percent of college students (up from 42 percent in 1970) and are obtaining advanced degrees in record numbers. In the mid-1970s, women made up only 16 percent of medical school graduates; today they constitute nearly 50 percent. Likewise women holding science and engineering doctoral degrees have more than quadrupled since the late 1960s. And the ranks of female Fortune 500 CEOs have grown from 1 in 1973 to 12 in 2007.

The timing of these advances is not serendipitous. At the core of women’s equality is the ability to control whether and when we have children. The legalization of contraception in the 1960s and abortion in the 1970s fostered women’s ability to make important life decisions about themselves and their families.

This fact is not lost on the only two women to date ever to serve on the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor co-authored an opinion preserving Roe in 1992 that acknowledged, “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” And just last year, in a powerful dissent to a Supreme Court decision upholding the first-ever federal ban on certain abortion procedures, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passionately argued that the core of the right to abortion “center[s] on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”

Yet, as we mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the connection between reproductive rights and gender equality is lost in the political wrangling over abortion. It is time to step back and reexamine the role access to birth control and abortion plays not only in opening up the classrooms, boardrooms, and legislatures to women, but to ensuring women’s equality more broadly. It is time to refocus the conversation on fairness and opportunity so that we all can make meaningful decisions about whether and when to bear children. The political, economic, and social life of our democracy depends on it.

Louise Melling is Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, New York City, and Sally T. Grant is a Board Member of ACLU of Maryland, Baltimore.

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This story was published on January 22, 2008.