Beyond Privacy, Toward Equality
By Priscilla Huang
If you have taken public transportation in New York City lately, you have probably seen the ads that say "Abortion Changes You " and "Women Deserve Better ." As a reproductive justice advocate, I instantly recoil at the taglines. These campaigns are the latest attempts by the anti-choice movement to advance a "pro-woman, pro-life" message - a message that insinuates that abortion is something always regretted and always something to be avoided at any cost. Feminists for Life goes so far as to declare that "abortion is a reflection that our society has failed to meet the needs of women" and that women are "driven to abortion." It is the same paternalistic attitude that I found so outrageous in Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion in Carhart .
It seems clear that these "pro-woman, pro-life" campaigns have usurped images and ideas that were once in the domain of the reproductive rights and justice movements. Young women of color are featured in both campaigns, and it takes only a small leap of my imagination to change the taglines to "Immigrants Deserve Better" or "Affirmative Action Changes You." Though the tactics have shifted from fringe pictorials of the macabre to poignant woman-centric portraits, the goal remains the same: eliminate a woman's right to choose an abortion. Unlike the campaigns of the past however, the more recent anti-choice ads also function to chip away at the underpinning of our reproductive rights law by giving the state a new interest in "protecting" women from abortion.
The Supreme Court declared in Roe v. Wade  that the right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." But the Court did not declare the right to privacy to be an absolute right, and said that a woman's privacy right "must be considered against important state interests in regulation." Thus, Roehas become vulnerable to anti-choice arguments that are based on the belief that the state should regulate women's decisions about abortion because the state knows what is good for women. Instead of advancing notions of gender equality over the years, our reproductive rights jurisprudence has become increasingly paternalistic.
Would this have happened if the Justices had decided Roe v. Wade on equal protection grounds instead? I think not.
The Declaration of Independence  proclaims that, "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Yet the ideal of equal rights for all individuals was contradicted by the existence of slavery and the denial of rights to some people because of their race or gender. In fact, the word "equality," did not appear in the Constitution until passage of the three Reconstruction-Era amendments: the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. The 14th Amendment  in particular declares that no state may deny "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Federal courts have also applied equal protection limitations to the federal government through their interpretation of the due process clause of the 5th Amendment. In short, the equal protection clause ensures that neither federal nor state governments may classify people in ways that violate their liberties or rights under the U.S. Constitution.
What is significant to me about the 14th Amendment equal protection clause is that it applies to "any person" (emphasis mine). The text does not specify "man," "woman," or "citizen" is subject to the equal protection of the laws. Applied to the reproductive rights context, this means that advancing reproductive rights and justice is fundamentally about achieving equality for all people. We cannot subordinate one group's struggle over another. Had Roe v. Wade been decided on equal protection grounds, our fight for reproductive rights would extend beyond stopping government intrusion. It would be focused on dismantling all barriers to access and ensuring that all individuals are entitled to meaningful access to health care.
The ideal of equality forces us to think beyond the individual and to carefully consider how inequality can impact a group's ability to thrive based on a number of variables including race, class, gender identity and citizenship status. Hence, we cannot look at issues in isolation or through a singular classification. It is for this reason that many reproductive justice advocates are also involved in the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform , prison abolition  and health care reform . In all of these movements, men and women are making demands on the government for better protections and conditions for those who are most impacted by inequality.
Principles of equality also encourage us to look long-term and dream about the type of country we want. Perhaps it would have helped us avoid repeat ballot initiatives like California's Prop 4  and the South Dakota's Measure 11 , where short-sighted approaches for fending off the initiatives resulted in the opposition tightening their strategies and more effectively honing their messages.
Making the government responsible for securing equal protection is not a paternalistic function. Rather, it would reframe reproductive rights as fundamental to achieving gender equality, and would pave the way to developing a doctrine of affirmative rights that can be integrated with human rights. As Election Day draws near, let's vote for a government that goes beyond keeping laws off our bodies. Instead, let's vote for a government that can create laws to keep our bodies and communities safe and healthy.