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On 42nd Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, What's at Stake?

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Thursday Jan 22, 2015

Today marks an important milestone in history: the 42nd anniversary of Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal across the nation. It granted women more control over their family-planning decisions, and freed them from the risks inherent in back alley abortions. Previously when abortions were illegal, that didn't stop them from happening -- evidence indicates they still occurred, usually in stressful and/or hazardous conditions.

"Refusal of abortion does not eliminate the problem underlying the request," says world leading reproductive health care expert and author of "Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation," Dr. David A. Grimes, M.D. "Many women will, at considerable expense, travel to get care. Others abort themselves or turn to the back alley."

Now, at a time when an unprecedented wave of state-level abortion restrictions is sweeping the country, Grimes is concerned women will again be forced into long journeys to get proper care should Roe v Wade be overturned, or if state laws make abortion less accessible. He said this would replicate the "sandwich years" in America, when tens of thousands of women engaged in interstate "medical tourism" to receive proper care.

"Between 2011-2013, more anti-abortion laws were passed in state legislature than in the entire past decade," said Grimes. "But if Roe v Wade were overturned, we wouldn't go back to the 'bad old days,' we would go back to the sandwich years between 1970-72, when there were only abortions available in New York and California, and women had to make terrible, long treks to get care. Imagine a long odyssey of 1,200 miles from Little Rock to New York to get care. This 'medical tourism' is a huge step backward in women's care."

Grimes is old enough to remember these 'bad old days.' When he was a fourth year medical student, he remembers giving care to women suffering from botched home abortions -- in particular, one who had a fever of 107 degrees and came in with a red rubber catheter hanging from her cervix.

"This is because abortion is a phenomenon that has been around for as long as pregnancy has," said Grimes. As the Prohibition proved, it is impossible to legislation personal behavior without impunity. As a society, women will pay for abortions with either dollars, or disease, degradation and death.

"When medical historians in the future look back at the 20th century, legal abortions will stand with antibiotics and blood banking as medical triumphs," said Grimes. "A very small number of religious sects and junk scientists want to turn the clock back on women, but they deserve better than to relive the bad old days," he added.

"Abortion in this country is a victim to its own success," noted Grimes. "An entire generation doesn't remember the unsafe abortion days. If you've ever watched a woman dying of this, you would never want it to happen again."

Many don't remember these days, because the legalization of abortion with Roe v Wade was "a sea change," said Grimes. "Overnight, deaths from abortions were gone. The risk of death from abortion today is less than that from an injection of penicillin, hovering around 1 per 100,000 for decades.

These days, said Grimes, women are more at risk from the increasing proportion of delivery by abdominal C-section, a major surgery. Many of these are older women are getting pregnant and dealing with comorbidity issues like high blood pressure and diabetes.

If the gains of Roe v Wade were rolled back, some women would return to self-induced abortions. Others would have kids they can't afford to educate, feed or take care of.

"No one benefits from forced parenthood; it's not in anyone's best interests," said Grimes, pointing to studies in Sweden that followed up after women were denied abortions, and tracked the social and educational consequences. "It's tough growing up if you're loved and wanted; the challenges are much more if you're not."

On the 41st anniversary of this landmark ruling, Grimes asked readers -- especially the generation that has never seen the repercussions of illegal abortion -- to consider the alternatives they are creating for women. This includes politicians, who seem unconcerned about forcing women into the back alley once again. "It is dangerous and cruel," said Grimes, "and it should never happen again."

To read Dr. Grimes new book, "Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation," visit

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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