Fifty years after Roe, it’s up to states to enshrine abortion rights

Fifty years ago today, people celebrated in the streets because the highest court in our land finally decriminalized essential health care and made the constitutional right to abortion law. 

Although it had its limitations, especially when it comes to access for marginalized communities, Roe v. Wade became fundamental to the health, freedoms and bodily autonomy of all people of reproductive age. While I wish we were spending this day resurfacing that celebration, instead, due to a decision made by the same entity just over six months ago, an urgency remains in the fight for reproductive health, rights and justice in communities across our country. 

You are reading: Fifty years after Roe, it’s up to states to enshrine abortion rights

The reality is this: The fight over abortion must take on a new resonance in post-Roe America at the state level.

Regardless of the political leanings of state legislatures, citizens in all states have made it loud and clear that they want abortion as an essential right. Which is why I am excited about what lies ahead for the state of Ohio. 

In December, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio joined with allies in the reproductive health, rights and justice space to form a coalition aptly named Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom. We are working in tandem to get a measure on the ballot that would amend the Ohio Constitution to explicitly protect reproductive freedom for all. Collectively, our coalition has provided abortion care with respect and dignity for hundreds of thousands of people, representing a network of over 1 million Ohioans across the state. 

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When the federal government made it clear that protecting Americans’ right to bodily autonomy and equitable health care was not a priority with the lack of movement on the Women’s Health Protection Act, the message became clear how it is incumbent upon the states to fill the void and protect Americans. Organizing at the state level around abortion-related ballot measures must become our priority. While this may not sound like the most efficient way to ensure the rights of all Americans, we have no choice at this point.

Thus far, this tactic is achieving nothing but success. During the recent midterm elections, the voters of California, Michigan, and Vermont each approved ballot measures to establish state constitutional rights to abortion. Currently, they are the only three states whose state constitutions explicitly secure that right. 

Michigan, specifically, is where an approved measure is anticipated to have the most immediate impact. A 1931 state law that essentially banned abortion in the state was being blocked by the courts. The passage of Proposal 3 by Michiganders helped prevent the ban from taking effect.  

Unlike Michigan, California and Vermont already had robust abortion protections in law, but this past election cycle voters demanded this right be solidified. When states enshrine reproductive rights in their constitutions, it prevents the state legislature from restricting the right to an abortion in the future. And given the severity of gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics deployed across municipalities, counties and states, it is even more crucial these same lawmakers are prevented from meddling in Americans’ right to bodily autonomy and health care.   

Initiatives also proved successful even when advocates stood on the defense. 

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In August, Kansas voters rejected an amendment brought forward by Republican lawmakers that would have declared that the state’s constitution does not protect the right to abortion. They were followed up by the voters of Kentucky, who rejected a similar amendment at the ballot box in November. Finally, in Montana, voters rejected a “born alive” measure that would have declared a fetus or embryo to have a legal right to medical care if born alive at any stage of development.

A year ago I warned of this moment, noting that if we failed to make it to the 50th anniversary of Roe, our mandate would be to continue to ensure access to essential care regardless of what the court decides. And now we must figure out how to do this — fast. 

While this Roe anniversary marks a reminder of what we’ve lost, this is also a reminder that Roe was always the floor — not the ceiling — and now we must reimagine what is possible for our communities. A vision for the future that centers those who were historically left behind will create a more equitable health care landscape for all. 

So although you won’t find us celebrating in the streets today, we are still engaged in the fight for the most important rights of them all: the fundamental rights of health, freedom and bodily autonomy of all people. 2022 may have delivered a major setback for reproductive health across the U.S., but we were also provided with a successful blueprint for the years ahead shall we choose to pursue it. There’s too much at stake for us to let up now.

Iris E. Harvey is the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio (PPGOH) and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio (PPAO).

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