The LGBT Movement Must Help to Reclaim Roe


Today the nation commemorates the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Today, as this fundamental right faces unprecedented attacks, it is time that we reclaim the promise of Roe for this and future generations.

Roe held that one of the most personal and intimate decisions one can make — whether and when to bear a child — belongs to the individual. While the precise contours of the right and the degree to which government may limit it have shifted since 1973, its essential holding remains, reaffirmed in the critical 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which validated Roe’s core principle: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”

The liberties that lie at the heart of these decisions on abortion are also deeply salient to the LGBT community. Our movement has fought for the ability — indeed, the dignity — to live openly as who we are: lesbian, gay or bisexual; transgender; and gender-nonconforming. We have had to fight to decriminalize our intimacy — for our bodily autonomy. And despite recent historic victories, we still struggle for legal recognition of our families. In recognizing the right to marriage equality last year, the Supreme Court acknowledged the link to reproductive autonomy, noting that the fundamental liberties set forth in the Bill of Rights “extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.”

The ideals embodied in Roe and Casey, however, too often go unfulfilled for many. As we see LGBT rights progress, our celebration is tempered by the predictable backlash and by the continued erosion of reproductive autonomy. Threats, violence, restrictions on health insurance coverage, and the enactment of draconian restrictions on providers continue to choke off access to safe and legal abortion.

Low-income women who qualify for government-sponsored health insurance were the first targets. Shortly after Roe, Congress adopted the Hyde Amendment, which bars any use of federal funds to pay for abortion. This annual ritual of banning most federal Medicaid coverage for abortion was unapologetically intended to be the first step toward making abortion unavailable to all. Its sponsor, former Rep. Henry Hyde, said: “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion: a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the … Medicaid bill.” Poor women’s access to abortion has been precarious ever since.

Poor women, rural women, immigrant women, and women of color also bear the brunt of the recent avalanche of state laws that eliminate access to abortion by burdening abortion providers with punitive regulations. Texas is a prime example. The Supreme Court will soon hear a challenge to a law in that state that a federal district court termed both medically unnecessary and “brutally effective” at closing clinics. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and upheld the law, unconcerned that it would eliminate any access to abortion in the entire Rio Grande Valley. Several other states are down to one or two clinics, making Roe’s promise a mere fiction to those who do not live near enough to those facilities and cannot afford to get there.

The LGBT community should be alarmed by these developments. Reproductive health clinics are vital sources of care for LGBT people, as they often provide the only affirming place to obtain care in some communities. Many such clinics are expanding services to LGBT people, including by offering hormones and other essential care to transgender patients. When these health care providers are politically targeted and they disappear, it is not only abortion access that is lost.

Many LGBT organizations, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, have urged the Supreme Court to strike down Texas’s cruel abortion restrictions. We must also press our elected leaders in Congress to end the long-running insult to low-income women’s dignity and health by rejecting the Hyde Amendment. The right to dignity, bodily autonomy and reproductive health belongs to all. It is time to reclaim Roe.

JULIANNA S. GONEN is the policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.