• Two Vermont doctors reflect on Roe v. Wade
     | January 22,2008

    n the day of the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we've been wondering how many Vermonters know of our state's proud history as a leader in the movement to protect women's health by securing access to safe abortion care?

    As early abortion providers, we've been thinking about our own history, Vermont's direction, and the continuing national debate that reminds us of the need for continued vigilance and involvement in the movement we have championed for most of our adult lives.

    Almost 40 years ago, we joined other Vermont women and men representing clergy, health professionals, and academics in advocating the legalization of safe abortion care in Vermont. In early 1972, a Vermont physician and his patient brought a suit to the Vermont Supreme Court challenging the state law criminalizing abortion, and shortly thereafter, the court vacated the prevailing law and Vermont joined a handful of other states making abortion safe and legal. With this decision, we all hoped that we had seen the end of the misery we had once witnessed-the women and teens who were seriously injured and died as a result of dangerous, illegal abortions.

    With these women and their stories fresh in our minds and buoyed by the thrill of victory in the courts, a group of activists and health professionals had the Vermont Women's Health Center up and running just six weeks after the ruling. Members of the University of Vermont's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology who had been in the forefront of the campaign to make abortion legal were generous with their skill and time and came to the clinic to provide abortions. Both of us joined them, working six days a week providing abortions and other reproductive health services.

    On Jan. 22, 1973, just 11 months after our Vermont case, we received word that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued the Roe decision. As women, activists and health providers, we celebrated this exhilarating moment, relieved that the issue had been settled for all American women, and proud of our professional and personal contributions to this historic change in policy.

    In the years since then, this "settled law" has been challenged on every front, and we've often been frustrated, sad, angry, and, as abortion providers, afraid. Access to safe abortion care has been more or less available to most women since Roe; we believe it will continue to be so for educated women with support systems and sufficient money to find a trained provider in a safe clinical setting. These women will certainly include our granddaughters. But, for less fortunate women, access has been eroded or eliminated by a plethora of burdensome and blaming regulations.

    Bit by bit, politicians have inserted themselves back into the most private, personal childbearing decisions of American women and couples. Well-established and long-valued resources like basic birth control have become controversial. Under the current federal administration, one policy at a time, "morality" has trumped science and public health has become a victim of ideology. The courts have shifted to the right, and with each decision they've chipped away at the principles established by Roe. No proposed regulation seems to reflect an undue burden on women in the eyes of our more conservative courts.

    We fear that with each step to the right, our country has forgotten the dangerous world that women lived in before Roe.

    Today is the 35th anniversary of Roe. We must not forget. We must encourage decisions that keep women safe. We must preserve trust in women and doctors. We must demand respect for women who know what is best for themselves and their families. And, with the looming threat that the current U.S. Supreme Court will dismantle or overturn Roe, we must encourage state protections to safeguard the health and safety of future generations of Vermont women.

    We need to remember that the Roe decision – and our earlier court victory in Vermont – did not make abortion available. It made it safe. Before Roe, abortion was illegal but still very common, and every day women risked their lives and future fertility to end a pregnancy.

    We must not go back to that dark time that we remember too well.

    Judy Tyson and Emma Ottolenghi-Wennberg are Vermont physicians. The former is retired and the latter is a consultant in international reproductive health.

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