Norma McCorvey did not live to see the case overturned. But today’s abortion access may more closely resemble the country of her youth than she imagined


In 1998, Norma McCorvey, the “Jane Roe” in the Roe v Wade supreme court decision, testified before a group of senators about the case fought in her name 25 years earlier. “I am dedicated,” she said, “to spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.”

McCorvey did become an activist against abortion rights, although she wouldn’t live to see Roe, which in 1973 established a right to abortion, overturned. She died on Saturday in Katy, Texas, at the age of 69.

Knowing the end was near, McCorvey gave her friends and fellow activists a mission the day before she died, according to her friend Janet Morana. “She wanted to tell everyone to continue the fight,” said Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life.

But while McCorvey died in a country still shaped by the case that bears her pseudonym, the practical realities of abortion access may more closely resemble the country of her youth than she imagined.

Anti-abortion activists began to chip away at Roe v Wade almost as soon as the supreme court handed the decision down. In 1976, Congress began prohibiting poor women from using Medicaid to cover abortions. Conservative state lawmakers have unleashed a tidal wave of abortion restrictions, such as an Ohio law signed in December, that make the procedure more difficult to obtain. The most effective of these laws forced abortion clinics to close down. Since 2011, abortion clinics have closed at a record pace of more than 30 clinics per year.

McCorvey wasn’t a soldier in the early battles. In the 1980s, she revealed her identity publicly and spent time volunteering in a Dallas abortion clinic and taking part in abortion rights rallies. It wasn’t until 1995, when she converted to evangelical Christianity – later, to Catholicism – that she began to join activists who wanted abortion to be abolished.

For the most part, she was active with religious groups and ordinary people who wanted to see abortion outlawed as quickly as possible. Occasionally, she lent her name to legal efforts that challenged Roe head-on. In 1997, she wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in a long-shot case claiming Roe had led to untold numbers of coerced abortions, and must be overturned.

The most successful contingent of the anti-abortion movement had long since left those tactics behind. In 1984, at a conference sponsored by Americans United for Life, a participant proposed what would become the movement’s most powerful weapon against Roe: laws that allowed the courts to chisel away at its doctrine.

It is a strategy that has proved highly effective. Activists have sufficiently narrowed Roe so that states can require women seeking an abortion to attend anti-abortion counseling; require minors seeking an abortion to receive the permission of one or both parents; require women to wait 24 hours or more before receiving an abortion; extensively regulate abortion after 20 weeks; and block public funding for abortion.

All the while, fewer women have found they needed abortions. This year, US researchers announced that the proportion of pregnancies that ended in abortion had reached its lowest point since the supreme court decided Roe v Wade. The decline was largely due not to new abortion restrictions, they believed – with the exception of unconstitutional laws that forced clinics to close – but to more effective and widely available methods of contraception.

Anti-abortion activists have credited the low abortion rate to the triumph of their tactics and rhetoric, and have largely hailed the Republican takeover of Congress and the White House. The party has historically aided their fight against abortion rights, and its leaders have announced plans to gut widespread access to contraception and place new restrictions on abortion.

All of this, of course, is achieved with an eye toward overturning Roe v Wade. Donald Trump, in his election-season efforts to win the support of anti-abortion groups, promised to appoint judges to the supreme court who would be open to overturning the decision. Many legal experts are skeptical, however, given the amount of precedent that now exists to protect abortion rights, that overturning Roe v Wade is even possible.

With this in mind, anti-abortion campaigners have noted the difference between overturning Roe v Wade and making it as though Roe v Wade had never happened. Activist groups and conservative lawmakers have shown that they can achieve one without the other.

Twenty-one states have laws allowing a parent to all but prevent minors from having abortions. The ban on using Medicaid to cover abortion has foreclosed the option of abortion to at least 1 million women. The closure of half of Texas’ abortion clinics, under a law that was later ruled unconstitutional, caused a 50% drop in abortions in areas where the distance to the nearest clinics suddenly increased by more than 100 miles.

Owing to a record number of clinic closures, thousands of women each year travel great distances for abortions and even cross state lines. An unknown number of women have attempted to perform their own abortions, including some who have tried to do so with sharp objects. The difficulties begin to recall a time before abortion was legal in all 50 states.

Two years ago, one abortion provider reflected on the changes, saying: “Sometimes, I feel like I’ve gone back 40-some years.”

Source: The Guardian