O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, will lead a
candlelight vigil to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the
landmark Supreme Court decision that recognized women's fundamental right to an
In a recent statement, O'Neill said: "NOW affirms that women's access to the full range of reproductive health services, including safe, legal, and affordable abortion is integral to a woman's ability to participate equally in this society."
I spoke with O'Neill about the history, importance and continuing fight to beat back the Right's continuing attempts to limit and undermine Roe v. Wade.
DB: I think we should take this moment to remember some of the history around this landmark legislation. Please set the scene: What was life like before Roe v. Wade, and where did this battle start?
TO: Back in the late 1960s in Chicago, there was a young woman who was a student at the University of Chicago. She became very concerned because of what she saw all around her. And what she was seeing was her friends terrified of becoming pregnant, and needing to terminate a pregnancy, and not being able to. So that's sort of a microcosmic description, I think, of what life was like.
That individual, her name was Heather Booth, in 1969, formed an organization called The Jane Network, which was an organization of women that procured illegal but safe abortions for women from about 1969 until about 1973. They performed something like 11,000 or 12,000 abortions that were safe and medically appropriate, albeit completely illegal. In 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe versus Wade.
The reality is that, for decades, prior to the time that Roe was decided, women who wanted to terminate a pregnancy would eventually wind up either continuing the pregnancy against their will and being forced into childbirth against their will, or if they found someone to perform an abortion, very often, it was really just a predator.
You couldn't be sure whether you were going to a... someone with medical qualifications who could terminate your pregnancy, or someone who was simply, a sadistic or a sociopathic individual preying on women who were looking to terminate their pregnancies. It was just horrific.
DB: And, it was brutal, and bloody.
TO: And what happened is, it's terrifying. I remember when I was a child sort of having the impression that pregnancy was the punishment that women experienced for having sex. That there was this, all of this, there was not only judgment but bloody, and terrible, and terrifying punishments, if you had sex and then if you wanted to terminate the pregnancy resulting from sex. It was a ridiculous means of controlling women through terror. And that fundamentally is what Roe v. Wade was intended to change. And it fundamentally did change.
DB: And in this context, the suffering was immense, women were sent off to live with relatives, they were hidden, this was really a very easy way to demonize women, while men just sort of lived in the free world, if you will. So this was really a battle, a key aspect of the battle, for women's liberation.
TO: Absolutely. And in upper-middle-class circles, a girl who was sent away, was universally understood that she was being sent away from home, so that she could go to an unwed mothers home, and be forced to bear a child, and then give that child up for adoption.
That actually is what sort of happened to the woman who was Jane Roe, in the Roe v Wade case. She was not able to terminate her pregnancy, and she had the baby, and she decided to give the baby up for adoption, and she simply wanted to hold the baby, have some kind of good-bye. And it was, "Oh, no..." They whisked it away from her. Women really were treated either like children, or certainly like, as if they were less than human. When they are not able to take control of their health care needs.
DB: Before we talk about the current status, and the battle that continues apace for so many women, and to have this opportunity. So Roe v Wade was passed? Tell us just a little bit about that battle. What was that like?
TO: Well, it was really interesting, because from the late 1960s until 1973 when the decision came down, there was just enormous legislative work and advocacy around decriminalizing Roe v Wade. State after state after state had begun, even before decriminalizing abortion. Before Roe v. Wade was decided New York State passed a law decriminalizing abortion. A number of other states followed suit even before Roe.