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The following op-ed appeared in the Bergen Record on January 22, 2008. It was written by ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs.
The strides made by women in New Jersey politics have recently made headlines
Come election day, abortion will likely be on voters' minds as candidates pull out the abortion card to cast aspersions on their opponents or stake claim to a constituency. Some voters will vote for or against candidates because of their position on the issue. Few, however, will consider what is really at stake in the abortion question: women's equality.
Roe v. Wade turns 35 today. With this anniversary we mark not only 35 years of reproductive freedom, but 35 years of impressive gains in the fight for women's equality.
Granted, these were not perfect years. Not all women have had equal access to reproductive health care: Poor women, teens and women living in rural communities have increasingly faced real obstacles because of government restrictions. Likewise, not all women have benefited equally in the expansion of women's access to higher education, better paying jobs or other socioeconomic gains.
And as with the fight for reproductive freedom, the struggle for women's equality is far from over.
Nevertheless, these decades have witnessed important advances for many women. The numbers alone tell a significant piece of the story: Thirty-five years ago, there were 15 women in Congress. Today, 92 women sit in Congress, including the first Madame Speaker.
In 1973, the number of women who had ever been governor totaled three. As of today, 26 women have served as governor.
And in the race for president, for the first time in our nation's history, a woman is one of the leading contenders for the nomination of a major political party.
Grand progress statewide
The strides made by women in New Jersey politics have recently made headlines, with the proportion of women in our state Legislature climbing to 15th in the nation, up from 43rd in 2004. The nine women in the Senate and 25 in the Assembly elected in November constitute 28 percent of the 120-member Legislature.
The political arena has not been alone in this transformation. Women make up 57 percent of college students (up from 42 percent in 1970) and are obtaining advanced degrees in record numbers. In the mid-Seventies, women made up only 16 percent of medical school graduates; today they constitute nearly 50 percent. Likewise, women holding science and engineering doctoral degrees have more than quadrupled since the late Sixties.
The ranks of female Fortune 500 CEOs have grown from one in 1973 to 10 in 2006.
The timing of these advances is not serendipitous. At the core of women's equality is the ability to control whether and when we have children. The legalization of contraception in the Sixties and abortion in the Seventies fostered women's ability to make important life decisions about themselves and their families.
This fact is not lost on the only two women ever to serve on the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor co-authored an opinion preserving Roe in 1992 that acknowledged, "The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."
And just last year, in a powerful dissent to a Supreme Court decision upholding the first-ever federal ban on certain abortion procedures, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passionately argued that the core of the right to abortion "center[s] on a woman's autonomy to determine her life's course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature."
Yet, as we mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the connection between reproductive rights and gender equality is lost in the political wrangling over abortion.
It is time to step back and reexamine the role access to birth control and abortion plays not only in opening up the classrooms, boardrooms and legislatures to women, but to ensuring women's equality more broadly.
It is time to refocus the conversation on fairness and opportunity so that we all can make meaningful decisions about whether and when to bear children.
The political, economic and social life of our democracy depends on it.