Legislation governing reproduction is dangerous to us all, unless it assures an individual the right to make decisions privately and without interference, and to receive reproductive care in safe, legal circumstances. A woman’s right to carry a pregnancy to term is protected, just as her right to have an abortion is, when the line of privacy is drawn at the door to the doctor’s office, the clinic or Planned Parenthood.

Those who march on Washington today are marching so that all women can have access to safe, effective, health care, whether it is birth control, prenatal care, quality obstetric and gynecologic care, or abortion. We are marching so that women can choose to have large families, small families or no families, and so that laws do not interfere with any of these highly personal choices.

I recall the bad old days.

The name Sherry Finkbine, an Arizona mother of four, hit the headlines in 1962 when she sought a safe, legal abortion to avoid delivering a severely handicapped child. She had taken the drug Thalidomide, known to cause severe birth defects, in the first trimester of her pregnancy. She challenged the anti-abortion laws of the time. Unsuccessful in this challenge, she went to Sweden for an abortion. She was fortunate to have the resources to be able to travel and have an abortion under safe, sanitary conditions with trained professionals to carry out the procedure.

In the 1970s individual states, New York being the first, passed laws making abortions legal. Roe v. Wade soon followed.

As with abortion, birth control has not always been legal. Pioneers in delivering birth control risked arrest and jail in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even after it became available to married couples, it was not until years later that birth control was available to teens and young, unmarried adults. Everyone I knew in high school who became pregnant either got married, or “went to live with an aunt” in another town and put her baby up for adoption. Occasionally, a really brave young woman would not get married, and kept her baby, raising it by herself or with the help of her parents. If the young woman chose to keep her baby, whether she married or not, her education was almost always cut short, or interrupted. Prior to Roe v. Wade, women risked life or permanent injury with illegal abortions.

Even with birth control, older women and married women also had to deal with unwanted or unplanned pregnancies. I can remember a friend saying her mother had tried rolling off the couch to induce a miscarriage. Another had tried large doses of laxatives. Family doctors were approached to perform abortions, but risked their medical licenses and livelihoods. Doctors were not willing to do tubal ligations for women who had decided their families were complete. This sterilization procedure eventually became more common, but a woman’s husband had to give written permission. If a medical reason could be found, a woman could have a hysterectomy, which also produces sterilization but is a much more complicated operation.

All women strive to realize their potential as humane, capable, intelligent beings. Each woman comes to reproduction with her own set of beliefs, religious and otherwise, with her own set of standards of what is humane and what is not, and her own life circumstances. When faced with pregnancy, women have to consider their own lives and the lives of other family members. For working women, these are matters of continuing employment, of putting food on the table, and of providing shelter for themselves and their children. The reproductive decisions based on these circumstances are not to be judged by politicians and legislative or judicial bodies.

We all want some degree of choice over reproduction, whether it be the right to have as many children as we want, the right not to have children, the right to use birth control, the right to space our children, the right to prenatal care, the right to have or not have an abortion. These rights are only guaranteed by agreeing that women, with the advice of their health-care providers, are the decision makers, and by providing safe, competent health care for all of a woman’s health-care needs.

Louise Paul is a health care and women’s rights activist living in Philadelphia. She can be reached at pww@pww.org.