A Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
In a cruel irony, the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade on 24 June 2022; one day after the 50th anniversary of Title IX becoming enshrined in American law.
Roe v Wade, which guaranteed the right to an abortion, and Title IX, which mandated equal funding for male and female students in educational institutions that receive Federal funding (just about all of them, including the priciest private universities) have long been linked in my mind. For one thing, a very different Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade only seven months after then-President Richard M. Nixon signed Title IX into law. But, even more importantly, one helped to make the other, if not possible, then at least practicable.
I am not a legal or constitutional scholar or even, for that matter, particularly knowledgeable about the history of women’s rights or equality. So, take what I am about to say for what it’s worth: While Title IX opened opportunities for girls and women their mothers could only have imagined, Roe v Wade, if indirectly, made it possible for them to take advantage of—or, at least, not to lose—many of those new-found opportunities.
To be sure, there is still nothing like gender equality in most areas of American society. Most educational institutions aren’t even in compliance with Title IX. Still, today’s young women can—at least, they have been able—to not only aspire to what their elder sisters, mothers, and aunts have achieved, but so much more. In the most visible manifestation of Title IX, ten times as many girls and women participate in school and college athletics as participated at the time the law passed. That, of course, has led to more women, pursuing careers, not only in sports, but also in other previously male-only or male-dominated fields: as a result of Title IX, medical, law, and other graduate schools, and undergraduate programs like engineering, could not continue their quotas or bans on female students—which were imposed with the rationale that women would “get married and drop out of the workforce” and the education and training were therefore “wasted.”
But many women would not have been able to take advantage of those new opportunities if they could not regulate when they became pregnant and gave birth—or, for that matter, choose whether they wanted to become mothers at all. Before Title IX, schools and colleges often dismissed students who became pregnant. Even after the law passed, many employers fired pregnant employees or shunted them to “mommy tracks.” While Title IX could not affect this practice, it probably led, if indirectly, to laws against it. And access to safe and legal abortions—a legacy of Roe v Wade—made it possible for many women, not only to stay in school and jobs, but also to determine the trajectory of their careers.
Just as Title IX has had secondary effects, so did Roe v Wade. You’ve probably seen the slogan, “Abortion is women’s health care.” It’s true in more ways than one. Of course, an abortion is sometimes necessary to save the life of the woman or to prevent disabling or destabilizing conditions from worsening. But not for nothing are Planned Parenthood centers the go-to places for other kinds of women’s health care. In some areas, it is the only provider of such services for several counties. More to the point, though, is a reason why PP centers perform procedures and treatments that are now routine for girls and women but were rarities or privileges, if they were available at all, to their mothers and grandmothers.
While there is still much room for improvement in women’s health care, and it’s still nowhere near the standards of care for men, it can be argued that the availability—and, in some circles, acceptability—of abortion has led to vast improvements. Much of that has to do with an attitude engendered by the availability and acceptance of abortion. Until the modern feminist movement, which sparked the fight that led to Roe v Wade, women’s bodies were seen mainly as incubators. In other words, a woman’s health was seen mainly in terms of her fitness for bearing and rearing children. (That meant, of course, that women’s mental health care was all but non-existent or women were actively pathologized.) In part because women could now choose when or whether they would become pregnant, they could exercise other choices—and insist that they were, as sentient individuals, as worthy of high-quality health care, for their own needs and their own quality of life, as men. As women could get better care and take better care of themselves, they were better able to pursue their dreams and goals. To me, this change was analogous to, and as revolutionary as, the Renaissance idea that the human body is beautiful and intrinsically worthy of aesthetic or scientific study.
Such an ethos is anathema to religious conservatives, who led the fight to seat the judges who voted to overturn Roe v Wade. So is the freedom to make choices, whether in one’s career or life. If the history of slavery has taught us anything, it’s that if laws or decrees limit people’s agency over their own bodies and their freedom of movement, it doesn’t matter whether or not they have any other rights. The Taliban have certainly learned that lesson well: They didn’t have to bar girls and women from school or jobs; they only had to mandate cumbersome clothing and forbid them from going any place they might want to go without the permission or accompaniment of a male relative in order to reverse the gains in education and work they made in the previous two decades. Likewise, passing similar laws in Saudi Arabia, and forbidding women from riding bicycles or driving cars, left that country’s females at the mercy of their fathers’, brothers’, and other male relatives’ caprices. Such restrictions also make it more difficult, if impossible, for women and girls to get the healthcare they need: Sometimes men think women don’t really need such care, or they are unwilling to bring their sisters and wives to male doctors, the absence of female doctors notwithstanding.
One particularly disturbing aspect of the reversal of Roe v Wade is that some states, if they haven’t done so, will ban abortions even in cases of incest and rape. Why do I, as a transgender woman (who will never become pregnant), care about that or, for that matter, about abortion law in general? I was sexually abused as a child, by a priest and a family friend. I can’t help but to wonder how my life might be different if the nine-year-old boy who experienced the abuse had been a thirteen-year-old girl. Imagine how that could have constricted her choices, and how it could have affected her life in other ways, if such an experience could shatter the reality—not to mention the career and family—of a thirty-year-old woman.
Because, as I said previously, I am not a legal or constitutional scholar, I can’t say whether overturning Roe v. Wade will lead to the evisceration or repeal of Title IX. But it’s hard not to imagine that the repeal of Roe v Wade could lead to many girls and young women not taking advantage of, and furthering, the opportunities Title IX afforded their mothers. White Evangelical Christians—who are to the Republican Party as African Americans have been to the Democratic Party —could hardly have hoped for more.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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