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Remembering Roe

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A recent Time magazine poll asked readers, "Is it too easy for a woman today to get an abortion?" The answer from 60 percent of respondents was, "Yes."

To pro-choice activists, such results reveal a frustrating lack of appreciation for the hard-fought right to safe, legal abortions. And they show an underlying lack of understanding about the constitutional right to privacy that the Roe V. Wade decision revolved around.

That's why in all the talk about last week's 30th anniversary of Roe, the most striking comments came from those who could remember a time before the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 ruling.

One of them was Jane Brown, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Speaking at a commemorative breakfast hosted on Jan. 22 by Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina, Brown recalled her days as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky in the not-so-distant days before abortion was legal.

"It was 1969, I was 19 and free love reigned," Brown told the crowd of 100 women and men gathered at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist church in Durham. "Three women in my dorm got pregnant that year. One dropped out and two had illegal abortions. One ended up in the emergency room where she was interrogated by police before being treated."

When Brown testified before the Kentucky legislature about the need for legalized abortion and abortion counseling (which was also banned at the time), hate mail and Bibles with passages underscored in red showed up in her campus mailbox.

After New York legalized first trimester abortions in 1970, Brown became active in a kind of underground railroad for women seeking abortions.

Reading from her notes "so I won't get emotional," she told the story of one woman from a rural Kentucky town who walked five miles down a "long, dark road" so that nobody would see her meeting with abortion rights volunteers. Brown and her friends helped the woman get a doctor's appointment and airline tickets to New York, but they didn't have the funds to go with her while she had her abortion.

"All that day, we worried about her," Brown said, the trick with her notes failing to keep her eyes from filling at the memory. "Would she find her way to the doctor's office? Would that doctor be kind?

"But when I went to meet her return flight that night, I found a transformed young woman," Brown said. "She was proud of herself. She thanked me for helping her with this decision that changed her life. It was then I saw the enormity of what we were doing."

Given the current combination of an anti-abortion president in the White House and a Congress controlled by a party committed to overturning Roe, organizers of last week's breakfast warned there are political enormities to think about, as well. But the event stayed focused on the personal significance of the Roe v. Wade anniversary.

"A reporter called me the other day wanting to talk to a woman whose life was changed by Roe," noted Janet Colm, CEO of the local Planned Parenthood office. "I maintain every woman in this country's life was changed by it."

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