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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.

Sitting on her living room sofa, with her hands in her lap, Blackmun falls silent for a moment when asked about the legacy of her late father, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who is best known for writing the Roe v. Wade decision.

"He would have liked to think that he had many, many other important decisions along the way," she says. "He's the one that seemed to get all of the fame and blame. That was kind of, I think, hard for him – and it never let up. It still doesn't let up. He went to his grave with that being his most famous decision."

She adds: "I think what Dad and the court never assumed was the fact that it got as much publicity as it has over the years."

Roe wasn't a close decision. Blackmun was one of seven justices who voted in favor of the right to choose. But since he articulated that ruling, he's often remembered as the sole hero of the hour.

Before his nomination to become the nation's 107th Supreme Court justice, and after spending 17 years in private practice in Minneapolis, Blackmun was the in-house counsel for the Mayo Clinic from 1950 to 1959, until President Dwight Eisenhower elevated him to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Indeed, Blackmun's experience with the Mayo Clinic and work with medical professionals compelled Chief Justice Warren Burger to assign the Roe majority opinion to Blackmun.

Blackmun and Burger had been close friends since childhood, having grown up together in St. Paul; it was Burger who lobbied for Blackmun's appointment to the Supreme Court in 1970, after President Richard Nixon's first and second choices were rejected by the U.S. Senate.

The timing couldn't have been any better. The Nixon administration was in need of a squeaky-clean nominee who would make it through the confirmation process. Blackmun slid through without objection. As a result, Blackmun spent his career on the court referring to himself as "old No. 3."

"I don't think he hesitated taking the position when it came to him," says Sally Blackmun. "It's certainly nothing anybody ever dreams about. That's usually not a goal of a lawyer, to become a Supreme Court justice, because you kind of just have to be in the right place at the right time.

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"I think, for him, [being on the Supreme Court] was always the weight of the world on his shoulders. In a lower federal court, if you get it wrong you can appeal to the Supreme Court, but it's the end of the line and decisions affect people. And he took that burden very seriously."

Sally Blackmun was in the same place as her father at the same time: Not long after his appointment, she moved to Washington, D.C., for a job in the Nixon White House as an executive assistant. That allowed her to be in the courtroom the day Roe came down, watching as history was made.

As time went on, old No. 3 received more than 80,000 letters on the Roe decision alone – and he read every single of them, Blackmun says. Some, he answered; others, he didn't, opting instead to let the people's words echo down the hallway of his mind.

"He said he wanted to know what the heartbeat of the country was," Blackmun says, stifling a laugh. "He wanted to know what those people were saying – good or bad or ugly."

Between 2010 and 2016, states across the country enacted 338 new abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That figure accounts for almost a third of the 1,142 abortion restrictions that have passed in the 45 years since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down.

According to a study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, in 2014, an estimated 75,990 abortions were provided in Florida, accounting for a 13 percent decline in the state's abortion rate between 2011 and 2014, from 23.7 to 20.6 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age.

The study also notes that there were 86 abortion-providing facilities in Florida in 2014, 71 of which were clinics (meaning, in this context, where more than half of all patient visits were for obtaining an abortion). Those numbers represent a 2 percent decline in overall providers since 2011, and a 1 percent decline in clinics. In 2014, almost three-fourths of Florida counties did not have a clinic that provided abortions, and 20 percent of women living in Florida resided in those counties.

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Although the numbers above don't account for the way pregnancy rates among younger women have continued to trend downward in recent years, or how some rural counties in Florida never had access to an abortion clinic to begin with, the aforementioned figures are strongly affected by what critics call "TRAP laws" – shorthand for "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers." The American Civil Liberties Union describes the purpose of these laws as a means to put medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers in order to block women from undergoing the procedure – basically, making it inconvenient since they can't make it illegal. Over the past seven years, these laws have proliferated across the South, particularly in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida.

The theory behind laws of this nature is simple: By imposing burdensome requirements on abortion providers and women who wish to terminate their pregnancy, such as invasive medical procedures, unnecessary building requirements for clinic facilities or unreasonable commutes from underserved communities, the law seeks to drive abortion rates down.

Florida – a textbook example of this legislative practice – has a history rich with such laws.

In June 2015, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 633, which required any woman seeking an abortion in Florida to personally meet with the physician performing the procedure at least 24 hours beforehand, meaning a woman had to make two separate trips to a provider's office. That was added to an already-existing law that requires women to undergo an ultrasound before terminating their pregnancy, look at the images and listen to an explanation of the process, unless they sign a form beforehand refusing to do so.

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Similarly, in March 2016, Gov. Scott signed HB 1411, a law that denied public resources to women's health clinics that provide abortion services. The bill also required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, adding more red tape for providers to navigate.

These bills, collectively, were brought to the Florida Legislature under the guise of empowering women.

"Let the fact be known that there's no medical guidance or support to that claim, and that we know across the country that these separate legislations are politically motivated," says Anna Eskamani, senior director of public affairs and communications at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. "At the end of the day, it's about restricting access to abortion; it's not about making women be safe or be empowered."

Still, she sees a series of silver linings in the constant uphill battles that Planned Parenthood continues to face.

In particular, the 24-hour delay that Scott signed in 2015 was struck down earlier this month by a Tallahassee judge. The decision came after the Florida Supreme Court temporarily blocked the law from taking effect last year.

"It's a reflection, too, that we don't win these battles overnight," she says. "It really is consistent persistence for something greater than ourselves."

"I think there's a lot of uncertainty out there, but leadership rises in moments of uncertainty. We've seen that across the board."

Although she's not quick to admit it, it's no surprise that Sally Blackmun would carry on her father's legacy. Aside from a long and successful career as an attorney, from which she's now retired, Blackmun served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando for eight years, from 2000 to 2008, and as board chair from 2004 to 2006.

It also could be argued that Blackmun's early personal life, prior to Roe, may have inadvertently influenced her father's decision.

In December 1966, in the winter of her sophomore year at Skidmore College, Blackmun learned that she and her high school sweetheart were expecting a child. Like any 19-year-old woman, particularly the daughter of a conservative judge, she was afraid – afraid of what her life would amount to if she had to leave college, of what her family would say, of the future.

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Her older sister suggested she have an abortion, but Blackmun decided otherwise because of the impact it might have on her father's career if word were to ever get out.

"It was illegal most places, and I'm sure I could have found a place somewhere in the United States to get a relatively safe abortion, but I decided that I needed to carry the baby and not have an abortion," Blackmun says.

So she married her boyfriend not long after the Christmas holidays. She miscarried three weeks later, while sitting in class during an exam. She and her husband split a few years later. Asked if she would have terminated her pregnancy had the opportunity been readily available, Blackmun doesn't flinch: "Probably, yeah."

"Certainly you have to think that the fact that he had three daughters played some part in his thinking about it. ... We certainly had our opinions about it and didn't hesitate to express them. He would have gotten a lot of grief from us, I think, if he had gone the other way."

Nationally, more than 920,000 women obtain an abortion every year, according to figures provided by the National Women's Law Center. Notwithstanding the fear-mongering over the procedure, abortion is actually one of the safest surgical procedures a woman in the U.S. can undergo. Fewer than 0.05 percent of all women who have undergone the procedure experience complications.

But the right's pushback isn't about medical safety, and it won't die easily.

Most recently, John Stemberger, president of the anti-abortion group Family Planning Council and a member appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the state's Constitution Revision Commission, proposed an amendment to further narrow a woman's right to privacy by clipping the provision that state courts have used to stop governmental intrusions into Floridians' personal lives. And the Republican-dominated Florida House of Representatives passed legislation in early January that opponents say would help "crisis pregnancy centers," anti-abortion organizations posing as comprehensive women's health facilities – which choice advocates have dubbed "fake" clinics.

No matter the attacks, however, Sally Blackmun says her father's legacy will persist.

"I think there will always be unplanned pregnancies, and I think women will find a way to get an abortion if they want to – need to," she says. "I had a college roommate back in 1967 who went to Japan to get a safe abortion. Hopefully, you know, that won't be the case. There were a lot of illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade and there were a lot of botched illegal abortions, and so I think there's certainly a concern over the safety of women, but I don't think women will stop getting an abortion if that's what they choose."

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