Former Planned Parenthood president's caution against abortion rights ‘complacency’ and ‘battle-weariness’

Former Planned Parenthood President Faye Wattleton knows a thing or two about going to battle for abortion rights. As the first Black woman and youngest person to lead Planned Parenthood, Wattleton steered the legendary organization through the early years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and helped expand access to reproductive health care from 1.1 million to 5 million patients.

But when Wattleton spoke with MAKERS in 2007, the abortion rights leader was already concerned about "complacency" and inaction of the post-Roe generation.

"The danger is a perception that the job is finished, that there is no more need to continue fighting," Wattleton told MAKERS.

"Maybe there's a certain degree of battle-weariness," she added. "What I fear — and I really feel very sad about it — is that women are going to start suffering. And that is when there will be a wake-up."

Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, right, and Kate Michelman, executive director of National Abortion Rights Action League, speak before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1990. (Getty Images)
Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood, right, and Kate Michelman, executive director of National Abortion Rights Action League, speak before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1990. (Getty Images)

Fifteen years later, Wattleton’s fears have materialized, with women and girls experiencing the consequences of the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24. Abortion is now banned in at least eight states, with more states expected to outlaw or restrict abortion access soon. For weeks the real-world consequences of these restrictions have been making headlines, including the story of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and had to cross state lines to get an abortion.

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision, pro-abortion-rights advocates have acknowledged that abortion access had been taken for granted by supporters during the slow chipping away of reproductive rights, which culminated in the Roe v. Wade reversal. When Wattleton spoke with MAKERS, dozens of states had already begun passing laws limiting abortion access, and SCOTUS had recently upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act signed into law by President George W. Bush.

"Why we are not engaged in a massive rebellion against this is really rather remarkable to me," Wattleton told MAKERS in 2007. "But I think it is also emblematic of where we are in terms of the complacency born out of the years of acceptance of a right and believing that it will always be there."

Wattleton said she was glad that her daughter, who was 31 years old at the time of Wattleton’s conversation with MAKERS, "doesn't experience a time in which she cannot control her reproduction." But Wattleton was also apprehensive that young women had yet to realize the battle for women’s rights wasn’t over — and that they still face obstacles when it comes to issues like bodily autonomy and equality in the workplace.

"They don't understand yet the barriers that they still will have to overcome," Wattleton said of her daughter’s generation. "And in a way, this is wonderful that there is optimism that perhaps the women of my generation did not have. But I think it's going to be perhaps a bit of a shock for them when they come against these barriers, because they have not been toughened by the early experiences of discrimination and the denial of equal opportunity and equal rights."

Wattleton experienced firsthand the realities of a pre-Roe world. As a young woman, she trained in nursing and midwifery, and witnessed what happened to women who didn’t have the option of terminating a pregnancy.

"I saw the evidence of women who came in that did not want to be pregnant — they didn't know how to prevent themselves from being pregnant — who had massive complications," Wattleton recalled.

Wattleton, who had an illegal abortion as a young woman, told MAKERS that it was once common for women to share their experience with abortion. She worried that as fewer people talked about their abortions and difficulties encountered when abortion was illegal, that the experiences of that period would be forgotten by future generations — which could open the door for history to repeat itself.

"Somehow we've gotten so polite about that, we don't talk about that anymore," Wattleton told MAKERS. "I'm not ashamed to talk about it. I'm ashamed to think, however, that if I didn't talk about it, some ground will be lost. Because young women will believe that it was all manufactured and it wasn't all that bad. It was bad. And we've got to tell our children that we can't repeat that history."