Book Club: Generation Roe

Generation RoeLike many in her generation, Sarah Erdreich thought the freedoms that Roe v. Wade guaranteed were secure. A child of the post-Roe era, she learned that the landmark decision had legalized abortion, striking down many of the state and federal restrictions that had previously forced countless women to risk their lives and health in the hands of underground abortion providers — providers whose work was not accountable to any professional medical standards.

What Erdreich learned was true, but it wasn’t the entire truth. Legalizing abortion was one thing. Guaranteeing access to it was another. After college, graduate school, and a series of abandoned career starts, Erdreich ended up in Washington, D.C., working for the hotline for the National Abortion Federation. Her job changed her perspective, opening her eyes to the extent that restrictions and barriers still diverted many people from the legal procedure of abortion. It was that experience that inspired her to write Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement (Seven Stories Press, 2013).


Generation Roe is worthwhile reading for those who want to build on the legacy of Roe v. Wade.


Generation Roe assesses where we are today, 40 years after Roe, with a sobering look at the continuing threats to reproductive freedom. In the decade that Roe was decided, 77 percent of all U.S. counties lacked an abortion provider. Today, that figure has jumped to 87 percent, while the number of women of childbearing age in those counties has increased from 27 to 35 percent. That’s one of many indicators Erdreich uses to capture the contradictions of the post-Roe era. Those like her who grew up after 1973 have never known what it’s like to live without the availability of legal abortion. But that availability has been curtailed by everything short of overturning Roe, from legal means, such as statutes mandating medically inaccurate pre-abortion counseling — plus waiting periods of 24 hours or more — to illegal means, such as threatening abortion providers and their patients.

Unfortunately, while so much significance can be pegged on Roe v. Wade, and while those few syllables can serve as a sort of shorthand for reproductive freedom, there isn’t a counterpart that succinctly captures its myriad curtailments. As a result, many of those curtailments are left out of the conversation. It takes a news hound to follow what’s happening in the 50 states on the abortion front and to have a thorough sense of where that leaves people who seek abortion services. “I absolutely think most people are not aware of what the realities are in terms of barriers to access,” says law student Kyle Marie Stock, one of the many people Erdreich interviewed for her book. Continue reading

Judging Sex: From Bowers v. Hardwick to Lawrence v. Texas

Tyron Garner, left, and John Lawrence, right, react to the decision in Lawrence v. Texas.

Tyron Garner, left, and John Lawrence, right, react to the decision in Lawrence v. Texas. Image: Metro Weekly

This week, two related Supreme Court cases both mark anniversaries.

Twenty-seven years ago (and yes, I totally had to get out my calculator for that one), on June 30, 1986, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick. In it, the court concluded, “The Constitution does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.” That is, even though previous courts had established and upheld a constitutional right to privacy when it came to some matters of sexual health — such as in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade — states were free to enact laws that made it illegal for people to engage in “homosexual sodomy” — basically, outlawing same-sex couples from having oral or anal sex.


June 26 is the 10th anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws nationwide.


On its way to the Supreme Court, the relevant appeals court held that laws that discriminated against same-sex couples’ consensual sexual activities violated an individual’s “fundamental rights because his homosexual activity is a private and intimate association that is beyond the reach of state regulation by reason of the Ninth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” However, other courts of appeals had issued rulings in conflict with that sentiment. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Bowers, it explicitly rejected that same-sex sexual activity fell under the same constitutional right to privacy:

No connection between family, marriage, or procreation, on the one hand, and homosexual activity, on the other, has been demonstrated, either by the Court of Appeals or by respondent. Moreover, any claim that these cases nevertheless stand for the proposition that any kind of private sexual conduct between consenting adults is constitutionally insulated from state proscription is unsupportable.

However, another date in June — the 26th, to be specific — marks the 10th anniversary of a different case involving gay rights: Lawrence v. Texas. That ruling reversed and overturned the court’s decision in Bowers.

So in those 17 years between Bowers and Lawrence, what changed? Continue reading

Mary Peace Douglas: “A Tender Heart and a Real Fighter”

The struggle for reproductive rights in Arizona has a history that stretches back to Margaret Sanger’s involvement with Clinica Para Las Madres, Planned Parenthood’s 1930s precursor in Tucson. Sanger and the other founders of Tucson’s first family planning clinic were brave activists with fierce convictions, and over the decades, the movement saw an influx of fighters whose work was defined by their passion and dedication.

Mary Peace Douglas, who became an active participant in Southern Arizona’s civil life when she moved to the Sonoita Valley more than 65 years ago, was one of those fighters. In the years that she worked for Planned Parenthood’s Tucson affiliate, Mary Peace Douglas made a name for herself as an advocate for reproductive freedom who had a remarkable resolve and spirit that breathed life into the movement.


In addition to the family and friends who remember her fondly, Mary Peace Douglas leaves behind a legacy of having changed Arizona for the better.


Originally from the East Coast, Mary Peace was born to a mother who had also been active with Planned Parenthood during the organization’s early years — meaning that she was involved with Planned Parenthood “from age zero,” as her colleague and cousin Dorothy Sturges puts it. After receiving a high school and junior college education in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Mary Peace moved out west to Southern Arizona, where she made her mark on the struggle for family planning in the region.

Earlier this year, on February 1, Mary Peace passed away at the age of 87. During her life she was a pioneering fighter for reproductive rights and helped build Planned Parenthood Arizona into what it is today. Beginning in the late 1960s, she served a long tenure on Planned Parenthood Center of Tucson’s board of directors, and later was hired to work in development, where she quickly proved she could be an effective fundraiser. Additionally, she spent time serving on the national board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 4, Looking Back

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ve shared her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this final installment, we look at her thoughts about her time at PPFA and her life after leaving Planned Parenthood.

In 1970, just a few years after receiving her master’s degree, Faye Wattleton left the Dayton Health Department and the Visiting Nurses Association to serve as executive director for Planned Parenthood of Miami Valley in Ohio. While she was there, the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down, and when a local reporter asked for a comment, Ms. Wattleton realized that her affiliate had no prepared statement. As she wrote in her autobiography, “The national offices had communicated no strategy for addressing the implications of such a landmark decision.”


“The exercise of safe reproductive health services and choices for women around the world is vital to the planet.”


At the time, no one had known what to expect from the Supreme Court, and the ruling came as a shock to Wattleton and her colleagues. But the Roe v. Wade decision would eventually thrust Planned Parenthood into the highly politicized abortion debate, despite the fact that their mission was — and is — broader than that, focusing most of their energies on contraception, preventive care, and education.

When Ms. Wattleton became Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s president in 1978, the organization had become, according to a 1979 Time Magazine article, “as all-American as the Girl Scouts and debutante parties.” But Ms. Wattleton restructured the national office staff in preparation for increasing political challenges, while continuing to expand medical and education services. During her first year, more than 60 percent of the national managerial staff left the organization.

Reflecting on the restructuring, Ms. Wattleton says that had she known then what she knows now, she would have begun her tenure at PPFA differently. “I had been the executive director of a Planned Parenthood [affiliate] for seven years before I became president [of the national organization]. I felt like I really knew the organization, but what I learned [is that] anyone who has the privilege to ascend to national or international responsibilities can’t quite appreciate what it’s like, until you’re actually in the seat. Perhaps I really overestimated my perspective on some of the nuances of the importance of touching base with a number of the elements within the organization; like any other organization, Planned Parenthood has its factions.” Continue reading

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 2, Belief and Mission

Ms. Wattleton speaks out against George H.W. Bush’s gag rule, which banned any mention of abortion in federally funded family-planning programs.

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this second installment, we discuss her religious beliefs and their influence on her work, which came up often in our conversation.

Religion was a strong influence during Faye Wattleton’s childhood and remains so in her adult life. She grew up in a fundamentalist family, and that religion, along with her experiences as a nurse, brought her to a belief in individual freedom that was absolute, including the conviction that every woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices.

When I asked about her work for reproductive rights, she said, “My view about that is perhaps most reflective of my religious upbringing, with respect to who shall judge. Judge not that you be not judged.”


“Our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.”


That religious upbringing was shaped by the fact that her mother was an ordained minister in the Church of God, and her calling determined the course of Wattleton family life. While Faye was still little, this calling took her and her parents away from St. Louis and the safety of extended family. When she reached school age, her parents left her with families within the church, each year in a different place. During this time, she learned to rely on herself and think independently, perhaps preparing her to be a leader while keeping her within the protective bubble of the greater Church of God community.

The Church of God is Christian, Protestant, foundational, evangelical, and charismatic. Members believe in prayer, the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible, personal salvation, and the unique, individual revelation of the Holy Spirit, which might include speaking in tongues. Ms. Wattleton often heard her mother preach and witnessed the emotional responses of her listeners in churches and revival meetings.

While her mother evangelized, bringing others to what she saw as the only way to God, Ms. Wattleton’s sense of mission came from the conviction that each person acts within unique life circumstances that must be respected. When I asked about this difference between her mother and herself, she replied that it “probably was due to my early training as a nurse. I went to college as a 16-year-old, graduated at 20. And so I was really deeply influenced by my professional training and exposure [to other people’s lives and problems]. It’s possible that, had I chosen a different profession, I may have seen life differently, but this is the profession that I chose.” Continue reading

A Conversation with Faye Wattleton: Part 1, Historical Perspectives

Faye Wattleton reflects on her career in the family-planning movement. Image: Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, 1981

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. At 34 years old, she was not only the youngest and the first African American to head PPFA, but was also the first woman since Margaret Sanger to hold that position. She had already been executive director of the affiliate in Dayton, Ohio, for seven years, and is still PPFA’s longest-serving president.

Ms. Wattleton received her nursing degree from Ohio State University in 1964, and a master’s degree in maternal and infant care, with certification as a nurse midwife, from Columbia University in 1967. Working in obstetrics, she saw a wider world than she had known and was exposed to the choices women in other circumstances needed to make. She saw the results of illegal abortions when women were desperate to end unwanted pregnancies, and saw the judgmental attitudes of many of the doctors and nurses who treated them. These experiences, along with her religious upbringing by a strong mother who was a preacher in the Church of God, led her to a career in the movement for reproductive rights.


“What is different today is that the element of violence is much less of a factor in the struggle” for abortion rights.


Ms. Wattleton was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this first installment, she speaks about the battle for women’s reproductive rights as it has evolved over time.

In the years since Roe, states have been passing more and more restrictive laws, such as Arizona’s strict 20-week cutoff for abortions, and mischaracterizing some birth control methods as abortifacients. I asked if it had been difficult to watch the worsening attacks against reproductive rights since she left Planned Parenthood — and was surprised when Ms. Wattleton said she does not think the struggle for reproductive rights has gotten more difficult. In some ways, she said, things have gotten better. Continue reading

Roe v. Wade: An Overview

The name of the case Roe v. Wade is familiar to many people in the United States. So is its main impact, to establish a constitutional right to abortion — which it did exactly 40 years ago today.

That said, many fewer people know the details, both of the factual case and of the case’s finding. Do you?

What did abortion law look like at the time?

At the time the facts immediately behind the case started, abortion statutes varied by state, though most states restricted abortion significantly. In Texas, where Norma McCorvey (“Jane Roe”) lived, the law prohibited “procuring or attempting an abortion” except to save the mother’s life.

Who was “Jane Roe,” and why did she sue?

“Jane Roe” was Norma McCorvey, a single woman who learned she was pregnant. In 1970, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington brought suit on her behalf under the alias of Jane Roe. They asserted that the Texas law violated the Constitution on the grounds “that the Texas Abortion Laws deprive married couples and single women of the right to choose whether to have children” (N.D. Texas Opinion of U.S. District Court June (17,) (1970) – Per Curiam:). Continue reading