U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was honored by the Veteran Feminists of America this summer in "A Salute to Feminist Lawyers 1963-1975," held on June 9 at the Harvard Club in New York City.[At the conclusion of the program, Ginsburg answered questions; following are her comments on reproductive rights.]
To one question about the prospects and future of Roe v. Wade, Justice Ginsburg responded:
"People tend to think that Roe v Wade has to be preserved at all costs. What has to be preserved is the right of a woman to have access to the means to control her own reproductive capacity.
"And it has to be much more than the bare right of a woman of means to obtain an abortion …. Our government has a policy that there is no Medicaid reimbursement for abortion, that there is for childbirth. I think that the concentration really should be at the legislative level, in the states, and in Congress, assuming the composition of Congress will continue to change, as it has recently.
"But I would never put my faith in one single Supreme Court decision.
"The work really has to start at the local level. I remember once, in New York, trying to find how hard it was for a poor woman to get an IUD. And it was terribly hard. That's what we should be concerned about."
To a second questioner who asked whether lawyers should work to recast the legal basis of reproductive freedom from the right to privacy set out in Roe to one based on the thirteenth amendment against slavery or the fourteenth amendment, Justice Ginsburg said:
"I think lawyers have argued that — in the Casey case, for example. It's not privacy, in the sense that ‘This something I want to do and hide from everybody, and, seal myself in a cocoon.' It's autonomy (which) is the idea; it's a woman's right to choose.
"And I have criticized the Court's decision in Roe v. Wade — not, of course, for the result. But that decision is heavily oriented to doctors. It's the doctor's choice as much as the woman's that the government shouldn't regulate what doctors decide is best for the patient.
"But I think the notion of a woman's autonomy to determine her life's course, that has come more and more into the … more recent cases.
"Of course, the most recent case is a flip-flop. The court had (held) that Nebraska's so-called 'partial birth' law … was unconstitutional because it didn't preserve — have a reservation for — a woman's health. Then Congress passed a law to the same effect, and the Court, 5-4, upheld that federal law.
"What was the difference? One person. Justice (Sandra Day) O'Connor was no longer on the Court.
"But I think the notion (is) that it isn't just some private act; it is a woman's right to control … her own life."