01.21.16

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Tomorrow marks the 43rd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade recognizing a woman’s constitutional right to liberty and personal autonomy in her decision to have an abortion.  This landmark case not only recognized these rights, but is also responsible for saving countless women across the country from the devastating and deadly outcomes of back-alley abortions. 

As a young state prosecutor in Vermont before Roe v. Wade, I will never forget when a young woman nearly died from an unsafe illegal abortion because she could not legally receive that care from a doctor.  I want to speak of that tragic history today because I fear that the current efforts in many states to roll back Roe v. Wade by denying women access to doctors who provide safe and legal abortion could drag women back to those dark and dangerous times. 

In the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, I was the State’s Attorney in Chittenden County, Vermont, and abortion was illegal in my state.  Despite the state ban, many women desperately needed and sought this medical care, and some doctors risked their freedom and livelihood by providing women with abortions at local hospitals.  These were safe abortions in medical facilities that saved women’s lives and protected their health.  Knowing this, I made it clear to the local doctors that I would not prosecute any of them for providing this medical attention to women.  I did, however, prosecute to the full extent of the law others who preyed upon women’s fear and desperation by extorting them for unsafe, back-alley abortions.  I am the only member of the United States Senate who has ever prosecuted someone in an abortion case.

I vividly remember that horrific case.  In the Spring of 1968, I was called to the hospital to see a young woman who nearly died from hemorrhaging caused by a botched abortion.  I prosecuted the man who had arranged for the unsafe and illegal abortion that nearly killed her.

After that case and witnessing, first-hand, the tragic impact that the lack of safe and legal abortion care had on women and families in my state, I talked to local doctors about challenging Vermont’s abortion law.  A year later, a group of women and doctors brought a class action case to overturn the law.  The case was styled as a suit against me as a state prosecutor, but this was a test case against the law and I publicly welcomed the case.  Even when the State Attorney General’s office told me that it lacked resources to devote to my defense in the case, I decided I would file briefs on my own.  But the case was unable to proceed because none of the plaintiffs were seeking abortions at the time.  The particular nature of the constitutional claim to abortion, which is by its nature a time-limited claim, made it extremely difficult to bring actionable cases before the courts.  But later that same year, we got another chance. 

The case, Beecham v. Leahy, quickly made its way to the Vermont Supreme Court.  At the time, our state’s high court was comprised entirely of Republicans.  Yet the five conservative justices understood what we had been arguing all along – that a statute whose stated purpose was to protect women’s health, and yet denied women access to doctors for their medical care – was sheer, and dangerous, hypocrisy.  The court’s opinion rightly questioned:  “Where is that concern for the health of a pregnant woman when she is denied the advice and assistance of her doctor?”  The court’s ruling in Beecham v. Leahy – that protecting women’s health required access to safe and legal abortion – ensured that the women of Vermont would no longer be subjected to the horrors of back alley abortions.  It was a victory for women’s health in Vermont.  A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade held what is now the law of the land:  Women have a constitutional right to their autonomy and bodily integrity that protects their decision to have an abortion, and to make that decision with their doctors. 

I recount this history not just to mark another year of women’s rights and safety under Roe v. Wade and Beecham v. Leahy, but also to connect that history to the attacks today on women’s access to safe and legal abortion that are threatening to take us back to those times.  States looking to roll back women’s rights have returned to penalizing doctors to deter them from providing women with safe health care.  What I find most appalling is that that states are passing these laws claiming that they somehow protect women’s health.  Yet these laws have nothing to do with women’s health and everything to do with shutting down women’s access to safe and legal abortion.  When you deny women access to doctors for medical services, you deny them their constitutional rights.  You also deny them their safety and, in some cases, their lives.  This is a fact that legislators passing these laws either callously ignore or willfully choose not to hear. 

That is why I joined an amicus brief with 37 other Senators and 124 members of the House in the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Our brief urges the Court to overturn a state law that requires doctors who provide abortions to meet onerous restrictions that apply to no other medical procedures and are completely unrelated to protecting women’s health.  The Texas law at issue would have the effect of shuttering 75 percent of all women’s health clinics that provide abortion services in the state if the full law were implemented.  Already, parts of the law in effect have had a devastating impact on women’s health.  As a University of Texas study of women showed, after the law went into effect, an estimated 100,000 to 240,000 women have tried to end their pregnancies on their own, without seeking medical attention.  The study found that women, with nowhere to turn, resorted to herbs, illicit drugs, and even self-harm.  That this law was passed under the pretense of women’s health is a travesty, and it must be struck down.  The Supreme Court justices cannot ignore the impact that this state law will have on hundreds of thousands of women in Texas and across the nation.

When I see these efforts to prevent women’s access to safe and legal medical services, I think about all of the young women in Vermont who have grown up knowing only that the Constitution protects their liberty and recognizes that they are capable of deciding for themselves matters that control their lives and their destiny.  I hope that they and generations after them never experience otherwise from the Supreme Court. 

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