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 nation’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.
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.