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Roe v. Wade: 39 Years Later

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Sunday, January 22 marked the 39th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision; but, this year's celebration is bittersweet. The victory it represents for women's autonomy and empowerment is tempered by the near-constant assault on its legal viability in the courts, in our state legislatures and in the streets by anti-choice activists who block access to clinics and threaten health professionals who provide legal abortion care.

Those of us who seek to preserve the Roe v. Wade decision face a war of attrition on the rights of women, waged by individuals who have anointed themselves moral decision-makers for all of us. At the same time, a huge proportion of women and men take the existence of the rights affirmed by Roe for granted, in part because our efforts to defeat the worst assaults have been successful much of the time. Roe v. Wade was a life-transforming event for those of us who remember all too well what life was like before it was the law of the land. It is our job to ensure that future generations of women never have to experience the horrors of reproductive health care pre-Roe v. Wade.

Last year, we witnessed more than 1,100 proposals in state legislatures designed to undermine Roe. Thirty-six states enacted anti-abortion laws. Those who ran for office in 2010 promising to focus on the economy instead turned their attention to ending a woman's right to choose to have an abortion -- not, as logic would have it, by increasing access to birth control, but by putting ever more restrictive conditions on each woman seeking abortion, imposing undue regulations on providers offering such services, and launching attacks on contraception and our nation's largest family planning provider, Planned Parenthood.

The fact that these laws are a danger to women's health and well-being should be reason enough for us to oppose them. But what is worse for me, as an American Jew, is that these efforts are an affront to our nation's guarantee of religious liberty and an attempt to tear down the wall our founding fathers wisely placed between religion and state.

Central to the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade is the recognition that different moral and religious traditions have differing views of abortion. The Court refused to rule on what they viewed as, in part, a religious question -- when life begins. In this context, for me, and the organization I lead, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), reproductive freedom and religious freedom are intimately connected. The principle of religious freedom demands that women be able to make healthcare decisions and choices, including whether or not to choose abortion or access family planning services, based on their own needs, moral judgment and religious beliefs, in consultation with their doctor and whomever they choose to involve.

All of the proposals and laws that restrict abortion beyond the framework outlined in Roe embody a demeaning and faulty premise that women are not capable of making moral decisions on their own. They suggest that women's most intimate behaviors and personal decisions ought to be subject to examination by the state. Further, they presume that one religious view of life can and should be imposed on everyone by law. This year, as the attacks on women's access to abortion continue, we must remember what is truly at stake, lest we risk losing this war of attrition on women's health and rights. It is not just about the width of corridors in abortion clinics or ultrasounds and waiting periods. It is about our nation's guarantee of equal rights, individual autonomy, and religious freedom.