As Roe v. Wade turns 45, women’s right to bodily autonomy is under attack more than ever before

As Roe v. Wade turns 45, women’s right to bodily autonomy is under attack more than ever before

In July 1971, less than two years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy across all 50 states, 23-year-old Shirley Wheeler was held criminally responsible for undergoing an abortion in Florida.

Wheeler's story began when she was hospitalized while having a miscarriage. The staff at the Daytona Beach hospital discovered that Wheeler had attempted to induce an abortion by inserting a catheter into her cervix and leaving it there. The hazardous procedure – one of many common yet dangerous black-market methods performed by back-alley physicians, midwives or untrained practitioners – was intended to cut off the fetus' source of nutrients, prompting the body's natural reaction of a miscarriage. For Wheeler, though, the procedure had gone horribly wrong; an infection had set in and she was bleeding profusely.

No sooner had the hospital staff stopped the hemorrhaging than they reported her to authorities.

Wheeler was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years of probation, making her the first woman in the country to be tried and convicted for intentionally terminating her pregnancy. The law under which she was convicted was, at the time, 103 years old – pre-dating even the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, by more than a half-century.

Society dubbed her a felon because she chose not to bear a child that she couldn't afford to raise, Wheeler told the New York Times in December 1971, before the case was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court and overturned. "I was afraid of having an abortion," Wheeler said, "but I was even more afraid of having another baby."

Just 13 months after Wheeler was forced into her brief role as a martyr of the burgeoning women's movement, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in favor of a woman's right to privacy in her decision to seek an abortion.

Debate on the issue didn't end there, of course. Time after time – from the federal cases that have reaffirmed the central holding of the 1973 decision to the many laws seeking to restrict abortion access passed in state legislatures in recent years – Roe v. Wade has found itself under attack and seemingly open to partisan reinterpretation.

Monday, Jan. 22, marked 45 years since the Supreme Court ruled, shifting the nation toward a more progressive notion of equality. But tension over abortion rights has always simmered in the Sunshine State.

Before Roe, there was Wheeler's plight as a public sacrifice of sorts, as well as the thousands of thousands of unsung women who found themselves in situations similar to hers.

The Florida Legislature has rarely been shy when it comes to attacking women's access to abortion, whether by way of grandstanding on the moral scale or enacting legislation. An example, among a number of others: the 2015 bill that enacted a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion in Florida, a similar law to what was previously passed in Texas. On Jan. 9, after the Florida Supreme Court temporarily blocked the law from taking effect last year, a federal judge in Tallahassee declared the law unconstitutional.

And then there are the longtime advocates, like Sally Blackmun, a former chairwoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando – someone who carries a story intertwined deep within the details of Roe v. Wade, although seldom told.

The first gleam of dusk started to shine over the lake outside and through the large glass-paned windows of Sally Blackmun's home as our conversation begins.


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