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Embattled Roe v. Wade Turns 40 Today/An Interview with NOW President Terry O'Neill

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DB: Now let's talk about where Roe v. Wade is, the rights of women in terms of getting an abortion and having a safe, legal, affordable abortion, and the other rights that go along with it. This is still the law but it's also getting difficult -- incredibly difficult -- particularly for poor and working-class women to exercise this right, right?

TO: You know, it is. It is much more difficult for poor women, for younger women, for obviously military women, for employees of the federal government, for women who live in rural areas outside of a city to obtain, safe, legal, medically appropriate abortions. But it's also much harder today for low-income women, these are women who are working two jobs, sometimes three jobs and barely making it in supporting their families.

It's really very difficult to say with a straight face that even if there was an abortion clinic in their neighborhood that was not being attacked by radicals, to suggest that there's real choice going on. I mean, what kind of a choice is it if you have to decide between terminating a pregnancy because you can't afford it, because you and your partner are struggling to get by, because wages have been pressed down so far in the past 30 years? So your decision is to terminate the pregnancy, which you might want if you could only afford it. And going forward and having the child, which you can't afford will drag the entire family down.

So the concept that Roe v. Wade opened up choices is wonderful, it's excellent and it's good. But we need to be mindful of the economic situation today, with the wealthiest people in this country sucking off the vast majority of the increase in the gross domestic product that we've produced in the past 30 years, meaning that [for] more and more and more families, to say that they have a choice is a little bit of an exaggeration.

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I'm trying to bend my own brain around how to make that point to the legislators, especially our friends on the Hill. And to try to see the economic implications of what's really going on for ordinary families, and for increasingly middle-class families. I don't seriously feel like it's giving them that kind of choice. Just from an economic point of view.

But beyond that, on the one hand you have families struggling and the economics are making their choices unpalatable. On the other hand, you've got Catholic bishops and truly, truly radical, irrational legislators like Todd Aiken and Richard Murdock, all claiming that women routinely lie about being raped just so that they can go out and have an abortion. They are just absolutely rabid to control women's sexuality and stop women from accessing not only abortions, but birth control. And, as I said earlier, STD screenings and mammograms and cervical cancer [screenings]. In 2011, alone, 94 anti-abortion measures were passed into law at the state level. The previous record was only 34 in 2005.

And that's an astonishing. It's an astonishing spike in anti-abortion legislation. In 2012, we pushed through, the women's movement and the pro-choice movement pushed those numbers down at the state level to only 43, again, the second highest in the history of this country. Vicious, anti-abortion legislation. And that's not letting up. In 2013, we've got legislation coming out of Michigan and Ohio and even New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christy has zeroed the funding for family planning clinics. This war on women's access to reproductive health care is continuing and is just jaw-dropping with its ferocity, really.

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DB: Well, you know, it's the end of Obama's first term, he's getting ready for term two. He's going to be taking the oath. Why don't you give us the good news and the bad news about the first administration and maybe then, where you think, if they really want to jump in and do something, where they should? What the administration should be doing next in this context.

TO: The bad news about the first four years of President Obama's administration with respect to abortion rights is that, in the health care debate, in order to get the Affordable Care Act passed, the administration gave up on abortion rights for women and the way the Affordable Care Act works. Insurance companies will not be required to cover abortion care as part of the health care that women ordinarily get. And in addition, it opens the door to legislatively prohibit insurance companies from making it easy for women to access insurance coverage for abortion care. So it was a real betrayal, frankly, of women's rights.

The Obama administration then redeemed itself somewhat, by standing very strong against the Catholic bishops, when the bishops wanted to make birth control unavailable in insurance policies, and the Obama administration was quite good. My organization takes the position that the Obama administration's carving out of an exception for churches, for actual religious institutions, like churches, and synagogues, and mosques, and so forth. We don't agree with that. We think that's illegitimate.

But the bishops were insisting on no insurance coverage whatsoever for birth control.  And the Obama administration absolutely stood up to them, and said "No." That's wonderful news, frankly, for women because we are now beginning to see studies that show if cost is not an issue for women, and they have access to birth control, that's the one that's best for them, and the general health of women improves over time. And not to mention that the cost for insurance companies goes down because women's health is better and obviously pregnancy and childbirth is actually quite expensive for insurance companies.

So covering birth control was a real win and the White House took a leadership role and they did a very good job with that. My hope for Obama's second term is that they'll correct the mistakes that they made -- that he made -- with abortion rights in the Affordable Care Act. I'm not holding my breath, but I think that's what he should do.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)

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