League's policy on reproductive rights
In January 1983, ten years after the Supreme Court made Roe v. Wade the law of the land, the national board announced its position on women’s reproductive rights: “The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that public policy in a pluralistic society must affirm the constitutional right of privacy of the individual to make reproductive choices.”
From that time on, the League at all levels has actively and publicly supported these rights. The history below describes the many and continuous pro-choice actions the League has taken for the last 40 years. This history is a testament to the ongoing up-and-down fight for women to have control over their––and their family’s––future. Read on, and you will see that Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is only one of so many legislative decisions that govern women’s lives.
History of the position
The 1982 Convention voted to develop a League position on Reproductive Rights through concurrence. That fall, League members studied the issue and agreed to concur with a statement derived from positions reached by the New Jersey and Massachusetts Leagues. LWVUS announced the position in January 1983.
In 1983, LWVUS successfully pressed for defeat of SJ Res. 3, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark US Supreme Court decision that declared [that] the right of privacy includes the right of a woman, in consultation with her doctor, to decide to terminate a pregnancy. The League joined as an amicus in two successful lawsuits challenging proposed regulations by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), thus thwarting attempts to implement regulations requiring parental notification by federally funded family planning centers that provide prescription contraceptives to teenagers.
The League has joined with other pro-choice organizations in continuous opposition to restrictions on the right of privacy in reproductive choices that have appeared in Congress as legislative riders to funding measures. In 1985, the League joined as an amicus in a lawsuit challenging a Pennsylvania law intended to deter women from having abortions. In 1986, the US Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional, upholding a woman’s right to make reproductive choices.
In 1986, the League opposed congressional provisions to revoke the tax-exempt status of any organization that performs, finances, or provides facilities for any abortion not necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman. In 1987, the League unsuccessfully opposed regulations governing Title X of the Public Health Service Act. The League reaffirmed that individuals have the right to make their own reproductive choices, consistent with the constitutional right of privacy, stating that the proposed rule violated this right by prohibiting counseling and referral for abortion services by clinics receiving Title X funds.
In 1988 and 1990, the League urged congressional committees to report an appropriations bill for the District of Columbia without amendments limiting abortion funding. The League also supported 1988 legislation that would have restored Medicaid funding for abortions in cases of rape or incest.
The League joined an amicus brief to uphold a woman’s right of privacy to make reproductive choices in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. In July 1989, a sharply divided US Supreme Court issued a decision that severely eroded a woman’s right of privacy to choose abortion. Although Webster did not deny the constitutional right to choose abortion, it effectively overruled a significant portion of the 1973 Roe decision by upholding a Missouri statute that prohibited the use of public facilities, employees, or funds for counseling, advising, or performing abortions and required doctors to conduct viability tests on fetuses 20 weeks or older before aborting them.
The League supported the Mobilization for Women’s Lives in the fall of 1989. Also, the League joined an amicus brief in Turnock v. Ragsdale challenging an Illinois statute that would have effectively restricted access to abortions, including those in the first trimester, by providing strict requirements for abortion clinics.
In 1990, LWVUS joined the national Pro-Choice Coalition and began work in support of the Freedom of Choice Act, designed to place into federal law the principles of Roe v. Wade.
In 1990–1991, the League, in New York v. Sullivan, opposed the HHS “gag rule regulations that prohibit abortion information, services, or referrals by family-planning programs receiving Title X public health funds.” The Supreme Court upheld the regulations; Leagues nationwide responded in opposition and LWVUS urged Congress to overturn the gag rule.
The 1990 League Convention voted to work on issues dealing with the right of privacy in reproductive choices, domestic and international family planning and reproductive health care, and initiatives to decrease teen pregnancy and infant mortality (based on the International Relations and Social Policy positions). LWVUS acted on a series of pro-choice legislative initiatives. It supported the International Family Planning Act, which would have reversed US policy denying family planning funds to foreign organizations that provide abortion services or information. It opposed the Department of Defense policy prohibiting military personnel from obtaining abortions at military hospitals overseas and supported the right of the District of Columbia to use its own revenues to provide Medicaid abortions for low-income women.
In 1991 and 1992, the League continued to fight efforts to erode the constitutional right of reproductive choice by supporting the Freedom of Choice Act and attempts to overturn the gag rule. In coalition with 178 other groups, the League filed an amicus brief in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, arguing that constitutional rights, once recognized, should not be snatched away. In June 1992, the Court decision partially upheld the Pennsylvania regulations, further eroding the principles of Roe. In response, Leagues stepped up lobbying efforts for the Freedom of Choice Act. The 1992 LWVUS Convention voted to continue work on all domestic and international aspects of reproductive choice.
In 1993, the League continued to support legislative attempts to overturn the gag rule. In late 1993, President Clinton signed an executive order overturning it and other restrictive anti-choice policies. LWVUS continued to work for passage of the Freedom of Choice Act and against the Hyde Amendment. LWVUS supported the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), a response to escalating violence at abortion clinics. The FACE bill passed and was signed by President Clinton in 1993.
During the 1993–1994 health care debate, the League pressed for inclusion of reproductive services, including abortion, in any health care reform package. In 1995, the League again opposed amendments denying Medicaid funding for abortions for victims of rape and incest.
In 1998, LWVUS opposed the Child Custody Protection Act, federal legislation designed to make it illegal for an adult other than a parent to assist a minor in obtaining an out-of-state abortion.
In spring 2000, LWVUS joined an amicus brief in Stenberg v. Carhart, urging the US Supreme Court to affirm a US Court of Appeals ruling that a Nebraska law criminalizing commonly used abortion procedures was unconstitutional. The Court’s affirmation of the ruling in June 2000 was pivotal in further defining a woman’s right to reproductive freedom.
As Congress continued to threaten reproductive rights with legislative riders to appropriations bills, the League lobbied Congress in opposition to these backdoor attempts to limit reproductive choice.
In 2002, LWVUS lobbied extensively against attempts to limit funding for family planning and, in 2003, the League lobbied the House to support funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which lost by just one vote.
The League strongly opposed the passage of the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Act in 2003, but it was passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush.
In March 2004, LWVUS lobbied in opposition to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), which conveys legal status under the Federal Criminal code to an embryo and fetus, but Congress passed the bill and President George W. Bush signed it.
The League co-sponsored the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, on April 25, 2004, which demonstrated and drew widespread support for the right to make reproductive choices, including many state and local League delegations.
In 2008, the League filed official comments with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) voicing concern over “conscience” regulations that would limit reproductive health care options for women by allowing physicians, pharmacists, and other providers to sharply limit their services according to their own views on reproductive health care.
In 2009, the League joined other groups urging rescission of the “conscience” regulations. HHS subsequently modified the regulations to preserve women’s reproductive health care and the doctor-patient relationship.
In 2012, the League successfully fought attempts in Congress to allow any employer or provider who claimed an ill-defined “religious or moral” objection to a health care service, such as reproductive health care, to be exempted from providing such coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The League opposed this exemption, which would undermine the very premise of the ACA that all persons, regardless of gender, should be eligible for health services under the Affordable Care Act and that failure to do so is discrimination based on sex.
The League also lobbied Congress in support of fully funding the Title X Family Planning program in response to proposed cuts to Title X, which provides family planning and reproductive health care services to millions of low-income individuals and families.
In 2013, LWVUS submitted comments opposing religious exemptions for contraceptive services to the Department of Health and Human Services. This debate continued in the courts, and the League joined with other concerned organizations in opposing broad “religious exemptions” to the requirement that all insurance plans provide access to contraception as basic care in the US Supreme Court case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the religious exemptions.
In the fall of 2019, LWVUS joined an amicus brief in June Medical Services v. Russo, a case that challenged a Louisiana law that required abortion clinics to have hospital admitting rights. The law would have closed all but one clinic providing abortion services in the state. In a 5-4 decision, the court struck down the law, protecting women, especially women of color, and retaining the three clinics across the state.
The League continued advocacy to protect reproductive choices and access to birth control under the ACA through 2020. The League also joined a letter to US House and Senate leadership that connected work on reproductive justice with that of the movement for racial justice following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other Black Americans. The effort encouraged lawmakers to take federal action to end the use of discriminatory legislation like the Hyde Amendment, which perpetuates the systems of oppression and disproportionally affects people of color.
While this history of actions taken by the US League ends in 2020, the League's work continues with many ongoing and new legal challenges.