40 Years Safe and Legal: Let’s Keep It That Way

This post was written by Nonnie S. Burnes, Board Chair & Interim CEO, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. From 1996 to 2007, Burnes served as a judge in the Superior Court of Massachusetts.

A seventeen-year-old girl sits across the table from me, calm but nervous – what young person wouldn’t be when meeting with a judge she never met before, a judge who has the power to decide whether she can get the health care she seeks?

As a Superior Court Judge, I presided over many of these cases, in which a minor requests that the court grant her the authority to consent to an abortion. These young women either didn’t have parents available to grant consent as required by Massachusetts law or were simply unable to turn to their parents for advice and counsel because of dysfunctional or violent dynamics inside the home.

It was 40 years ago this month that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the historic Roe v. Wade decision. This landmark ruling affirmed that the constitutionally protected right to privacy includes every woman’s ability to make her own personal medical decisions.

Yet in many cases, politics intervenes in these decisions, as illustrated by parental consent mandates. The more I met with young women seeking judicial authority to make her own decision to have an abortion, the more I realized the necessity of meaningful access to abortion. These young women didn’t need me to make their decisions for them. They came to me well-prepared, having thought carefully about their decision after consulting with trusted caregivers, counselors, and loved ones.

My role as a judge enabled me to see firsthand that abortion is a deeply personal and sometimes complex decision for a woman.  Ultimately, the decision about whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or raise a child must be left to a woman, her family, and her faith, with the counsel of her doctor.  Despite the recent claim in TIME magazine that support for safe, legal abortion has waned, numerous polls show that a majority of Americans still agree with the nPolls show consistent support for Roe v Wade over the past 20 yearsation’s highest court.

A Quinnipiac poll taken in February 2012 found that nearly two-thirds of American voters support Roe v. Wade, while a mere 31 percent disagreed. A poll from the Pew Research Center released earlier this month confirmed these findings across all age groups.

But interestingly, the way people identify with the issue has shifted over the years. Labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” no longer reflect the way people think and feel about abortion. The fact is, generations of Americans — across party lines — understand that it’s just not that simple and can’t be put squarely in a “pro” or “anti” box. Indeed, the number of Americans who support access to safe and legal abortion is consistently higher than those who identify as “pro-choice.” And many Americans self-identify as both “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” making these labels both sides have clung to sort of meaningless.

What unites people — and what doesn’t need a label — is the shared belief that politicians should not meddle in a woman’s personal decisions about her pregnancy. We cannot understand another woman’s specific situation. We don’t walk in her shoes.

Undoubtedly, voters made it clear last year that they are opposed to policies that demean and dismiss women. Voters rejected some of the nation’s most vocal and extreme opponents of safe and legal abortion. Yet, despite the electoral outcome, out-of-touch politicians across the country continue to try to chip away at abortion access.

Even in Massachusetts, the deceptively titled “Woman’s Right to Know” bill was re-filed at the state house again this year. This bill, using tactics that shame women, would create barriers to timely access to care and restrict a doctor’s ability to provide the compassionate care women need.

Simply put, these attacks on women’s health fly in the face of public opinion and are dangerous to women and their families. To protect their health and the health of their families, women must have access to safe, legal abortion, as protected by the nation’s highest court — without interference from politicians.

That’s why over 220 women’s health advocates came together at the State House earlier this month to support legislation that would protect and expand access here in Massachusetts.

Megan Amundson, Executive Director, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts

And that’s why at Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, a leading women’s health care provider and advocate with seven health centers across Massachusetts, we work every day to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and keep women healthy. We understand that a woman should have accurate information about all her options regarding her pregnancy, and that this information should support a woman and help her make a decision for herself.

We’ve protected access to abortion for women for 40 years, and we will continue to protect it for the next 40.


3 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I have many doubts

    about the “necessity” of abortion, and am unsure that it differs fundamentally from legal infanticide.
    Among these many doubts are the following: given that there are many people who are unable to have children but wish to adopt, wouldn’t it be more humane and socially beneficial to allow the babies to live and give them to people who would like to care for them? Why is “termination” so often offered up as the only recourse? Another doubt surrounds the elimination of the father from the decision making process. For instance, if a man and a woman both, through error, irresponsibility, or an accident (broken condom?) create a pregnancy, and the man commits to raising the child on his own, why shouldn’t he be able to exercise that right? As of today it still takes two people to create a human life- why should only the woman decide if the child lives? In what sense is this “equality”?
    I wonder also about the psychological impact of abortion on women who have them. I’m sure it varies from case to case, but is there reliable data on this? It seems something that might be of interest to an organization purporting to provide comprehensive information about all options.
    In general I find the arguments in favor of legal abortion to be very weak, contrasted with some very compelling arguments against it. Admittedly, most of these arguments are predicated on the notion that a fetus, even a very young one, has enough humanity to deserve legal protection.

  2. Ultimately it is the woman's body that bears the burden of pregnancy.

    An accidental father being willing to raise the child is noble, but he does not have to carry it 24/7 for nine months. I do think our policies and practices should at least be such that no woman chooses abortion only because she thinks it’s the only realistic option, so prenatal care and availabililty for adoptions are absolutely essential. There may even come a day when we can terminate pregnancies live very early, but we’re not there yet. As for what other impacts there might be that should certainly be considered, but by the woman and her doctor, not by law which is almost certainly less flexible than individual decisions.

    • Agree with Christopher

      I’ve always supported Roe v Wade, this used to be reluctantly, but college and my adulthood thus far have allowed realism to temper my idealism. In an ideal world no woman would have an abortion, but in the real world with real lasting consequences of an unwanted pregnancy brought to term I am simply in no position to judge. Can I look a close college friend in the eye who is now a social worker and criminal defense attorney doing so much good for undocumented aliens in the Bronx and argue the burden of motherhood should have been forced on her because in spite of being responsible she ended up in that situation? Or on another friend who joined the Navy to defend our freedoms but happened to get date raped back when she was a freshmen? Even a third friend who had two due to irresponsibility does not deserve my judgment. I am in no position to make that call. I respect where farnkoff is coming from, I had these same thoughts as well at one time, and sometimes on this blog. But I’ve evolved. I’m still uncomfortable with it and I want to encourage every possible alternative to keep it rare as well as safe and legal, but at the end of the day the right is not mine to give or take away as far as I’m concerned.

      Labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” no longer reflect the way people think and feel about abortion. The fact is, generations of Americans — across party lines — understand that it’s just not that simple and can’t be put squarely in a “pro” or “anti” box.


      The reality based policy choice on abortion is not between ‘life’ and ‘abortion’ but between the ‘coat hanger’ and a ‘safe hospital’. At the end of the day we can’t ban the procedure without doing immense amounts of harm to womens public health, so lets have it in the daylight and educate people honestly about their reproductive health and I wouldn’t be surprised if the abortion rate went down, just as it did in the Clinton administration and has in the Obama administration.

      And those of us with nuance choose the pro-choice side as the pro-life side is now just Akins and Mourdocks that are so anti-woman its absurd to take them seriously.

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Tue 28 Mar 11:52 AM