Just a few months ago, a monumental case that protected the constitutional right to privacy for women was overturned. After 50 years of serving as precedent, Roe v. Wade was rolled back, and 167 million people in this country have had their equality further chipped away and their bodily autonomy threatened. How did this happen? I have several different thoughts about how the political landscape of this country has shifted over the past seven years and pushed us to this point, but a better question would be why have we rolled back this protection knowing why it was originally put in place? Have we forgotten the history of what happened to women before abortion was legal and federally protected? Have we forgotten our collective history?
In a time when many conservative states are openly and actively changing history curriculums to better fit their warped and “alternative truth” agendas, knowing our history and knowing it factually is one of the greatest tools that activists and advocates have.
This country is currently in an era when book bans and unprecedented restrictive changes are being made to school curriculums to push far-right extremist views and falsify and alter the very dark and often racist history of this country. Over the past two years, 15 states have passed laws restricting curriculum which will affect nearly 122 million people. Between January and August of 2022, 36 states issued 137 pieces of legislation aimed at limiting the way that teachers are able to teach their students. Most of this legislation has aimed to restrict how race, sexuality, and gender are taught, and most of this legislation has been aimed at K-12 schools. Of the 137 pieces of legislation, only one has been introduced by a Democratic politician.
While these changes are currently being aimed at K-12 schools, an increasing number of these laws will apply to colleges and universities, too. This is troubling.
It is not just an adage or a cliche to say that if you don’t know your history, then you’ll repeat it. In this case, history is literally being rewritten, changed, and/or erased. That’s exactly what is happening in real time in our country as we witness historic rollbacks on human and constitutional rights and the systemic denial of scientific facts. We — or rather a select group who have collectively been able to sway us toward the opinion that it doesn’t even matter — don’t even know our history. We have been swayed to not acknowledge facts, and we are paying for it and will continue to do so until we collectively change.
Prior to 1973 and before Roe v. Wade was decided in the Supreme Court, it was routine for women to die due to being denied access to safe abortions. Let’s be clear. Women have always gotten abortions. They have not always been able to access safe abortions, and that has resulted in death. Nearly 100 years prior to Roe v. Wade, the Comstock Law was passed, making it a federal crime to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines. By the early 1900s, medical journals were filled with the stories of women with perforated and infected uteruses from unmonitored and medically questionable abortions. Women who sought abortions had little to no options to safely get them, and by the 1930s, it is estimated that more than 600,000 abortions were taking place yearly, with roughly 10,000 women dying due to medical complications. After Roe v. Wade was passed into law, the mortality rate for those receiving abortions drastically dropped to about 70 deaths per every 100,000 abortions. After Roe v. Wade was passed into law, it became statistically safer to have an abortion than to give birth to a child.
I’m worried that the people who have advocated for the reversal of Roe aren’t concerned enough with what life was like for women aiming to get abortions before the law. Those stakeholders who are anti-abortion are committed to continuing to push a false history that posits that women have never gotten abortions and have never practiced family planning. Have they forgotten the bloody and gory tales of women dying from their wounds during and after abortions? Do they not care? The women who died pre-Roe deserve to be remembered, and their deaths deserve to be remembered and spoken about so that other women do not meet the same fate. We cannot forget them, and we cannot forget what awaits us if women do not have full bodily autonomy to make decisions for themselves, their bodies, and their futures. If abortion access is limited or taken away, there will be casualties. We as a nation must decide if we are OK with politicians allowing and advocating for that to happen.
Celeste Graham is a mother, a high school special education teacher, and a Ph.D. candidate at Texas Woman’s University in the department of social sciences and historical studies. She is currently writing her dissertation about formerly incarcerated mothers of color and their lives after they are released from prison.
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