Roe v. Wade ruling matters, but mostly as a symbol. It has not protected abortion rights.

Ziad Munson, Opinion contributor
·4 min read

Here's a reality check for both sides of the abortion issue: The days when the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling protected widespread and easy access to abortion, along with the days when overturning Roe might dramatically reduce the number of abortions, are decades in the past.

The value of Roe today is not so much practical as it is symbolic. For the pro-choice movement, Roe has become an important public face of reproductive rights and a symbol of women's equality under the law. For the pro-life movement, Roe represents an original sin that activists have spent almost two generations working to erase.

Like any symbol, the fate of Roe matters to the outlook and morale of those who imbue it with so much meaning. But recognizing its power as a symbol is quite a different thing than seeing the future of the legal and political status of abortion hanging on whether it is upheld or overturned. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself long recognized this; she was a champion of abortion rights but mindful of the limits of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Declining abortion access since Roe

Abortion rights don't hinge on whether a newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett will vote to overturn Roe, because abortion rights have already been brought to death's door by a thousand smaller cuts over the past 50 years — delivered by the courts, Congress, state capitals and the mass media.

Those rights were never so wide or well protected as they were in the immediate wake of the Roe v. Wade decision. The history of the abortion debate since 1973 has been — without exception — a history of ever declining availability and access to safe and legal abortion services.

Pro-choice and pro-life activists on Jan. 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Pro-choice and pro-life activists on Jan. 18, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Federal funding of abortion for poor women has been prohibited by the Hyde Amendment since 1977. A string of major Supreme Court cases like Webster v. Reproductive Health Svcs. (1989), Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (1992) and Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) has ushered in ever increasing obstacles to, and limits on, the availability of abortion.

Even those Supreme Court cases celebrated as victories by the pro-choice movement, like the 2016 Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt decision, have never actually expanded abortion rights but only limited the scope and pace at which such rights continue to disappear. Since Roe, the pro-choice movement has had to redefine "victory" as forestalling further losses.

Restrictions the norm: I had an abortion after a fatal fetal diagnosis. Amy Coney Barrett could take that choice away.

Preserving Roe v. Wade now will prevent a sudden acceleration of this trend, but it won't check the trend from continuing. At the same time, overturning Roe will not lead to a sea change in abortion access for most women. This is in large part because such access is already so restricted:

►At least five states now have only a single abortion provider.

►About 90% of U.S. counties have no provider at all.

►States continue to increase the requirements and restrictions placed on women who seek abortions anywhere.

Full abortion bans aren't popular

Another factor is the very real political limits of total abortion bans, even in very conservative areas of the country. Such restrictions are already so unpopular that new pro-life restrictions are increasingly pushed underground rather than openly. A federal judge noted the "highly unusual circumstances" in which the Iowa Legislature attempted to pass new abortion restrictions in the middle of the night and without public debate earlier this year.

This follows a similar episode in North Carolina, where abortion restrictions were also passed in the middle of the night, attached to a bill ostensibly about motorcycle safety. Overturning Roe would bring attempts at full abortion bans into the harsh light of day, where — in most cases — they can't survive politically.

Why faith voters should stick with Trump: Christian leaders of character surround the president

The battle between the pro-choice and pro-life movements will continue to be fierce because the stakes continue to be extremely high. The victories and defeats will have important, measurable and long-lasting impacts on both individual families and our country as a whole. The dysfunction of Congress has made the Supreme Court more important than ever in governance, and replacing Ginsburg with Barrett will thus have profound consequences in the years ahead. Even so, the political struggle over abortion has never been about a single Supreme Court decision, and the status of Roe v. Wade today is no exception.

Ziad Munson, an associate professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lehigh University, is the author of "Abortion Politics" (2018) and "The Making of Pro-Life Activists" (2009). His current research focuses on the changing political landscape of suburban America. Follow him on Twitter: @zmunson

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barrett Supreme Court vote: Abortion rights have eroded ever since Roe