Editor’s note: Since this opinion was written, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade.
When I was growing up, there were only islands of freedom in America that receded and expanded depending upon the political winds. Generally speaking, these islands comprised the West Coast and East Coast (down to the Capitol). In 1971, only in a handful of states was it legal to have an abortion – exactly nine (Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) plus Washington, D.C.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas anti-abortion law in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade. The court ruled that no state could outlaw abortion in the woman’s first trimester of pregnancy. Only she, in consultation with her attending physician, had the right to decide whether to continue the pregnancy or not.
Before Roe, the victim of a sexual assault became the criminal if she sought an abortion. In some states, abortions were banned even if medically necessary to terminate the pregnancy; for example, if a woman experienced a septic uterus or a miscarriage that her body wouldn’t release.
On the other hand, young men were admired for being seducers, while young women were ostracized for being seduced. Not only was a legal abortion generally outlawed, so, too, were access to and education about effective birth control measures. The “unwed mother,” as she was dubbed, suffered shame, abandonment, financial hardship, and lost opportunity to advance herself or continue her education.
Then, as now, abortion wasn’t an issue for the wealthy woman, as money afforded opportunity and secrecy. Only the well-off could travel beyond their state of residence to the islands of freedom, like New York. Poor women had no access to safe abortions, and many, too many, died. I remember meeting a woman who worked two jobs just to make ends meet and who had to choose between bringing another child into poverty or feeding the children she already had, after her partner walked out on her. She went alone to a filthy room and put her body and soul into the hands of a professional criminal – because that’s what every doctor or underground activist who performed an abortion was, whether he or she was an extortionist, feminist, or an idealist. Thankfully, she was one of those who survived.
After the Roe decision, maternal deaths decreased drastically; fewer abortions occurred across state lines; women of color had much better access to safe abortion; and a higher share of abortions occurred earlier in pregnancy than before.
All of this could change, leaving women and some non-binary persons, trans men, and others who could experience pregnancy to suffer the horrors and despair of the pre-Roe era. GOP-run state legislatures are ready and waiting to effect laws ending all abortions, despite the evidence that most Americans support a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion or not. In Michigan, the state would revert back to a 1931 law that criminalizes abortion. Not only would a woman be denied her abortion rights, she could be arrested and tried for a felony offense if she were somehow to have one. Ditto anyone who helped her have an abortion.
After Trump’s election, the GOP-controlled states have been pushing through legislation banning or severely restricting abortion, as they sense their opportunity is now. So far in 2022, abortion restrictions or abortion prohibitions have been enacted in eleven GOP-controlled states: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In fact, the Republican Party and evangelicals have been plotting this for decades, but the Trump presidency gave them their moment to pack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion judges. Let us call it what it actually is: a war to deny our independence, freedom and dignity. Forced birth is not “pro-life.”
During the first week in May, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s first draft of the majority opinion in the monumental abortion case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health was leaked to the media. This draft revealed that the conservative majority on the court was likely to overturn Roe v. Wade and end the constitutional right to an abortion. Many states are considering or have passed so-called trigger laws that would rapidly curtail or outlaw abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court reversing Roe. The Guttmacher Institute, a research firm that tracks abortion policy and supports reproductive rights, has estimated that 26 states are likely or certain to ban abortion once Roe is gone.
The legal theory that the Supreme Court is likely to use to overturn Roe is the same one that has been used to repress people of color and queers. It’s called “states’ rights” which effectively narrows the civil rights protection of the U.S. Constitution and the federal government. States’ rights means that the “people’s representatives” in the state legislature and governor will decide whose rights matter and who is free. The majority anti-abortion Supreme Court judges are likely to deny that women have civil rights enshrined in the Constitution, any right to privacy or right of due process when it comes to making her/their own choice about whether to continue her/their pregnancy or not and will leave the matter for states to decide.
In its historical context, states’ rights legalized blatant discrimination and persecution of Black Americans. As the GOP-controlled legislature does today, voting districts were routinely manipulated by law to allow right wingers to rule and dilute the power of cities and minorities. In the South, Black people couldn’t mingle with whites in public places, buses, and schools; they couldn’t even drink from the same water fountains as whites. State law was enforced by fear of mob violence and lynching. Black people were effectively prohibited from voting due to state poll taxes and intimidation.
It was also perfectly legal to persecute queers. LGBTQ+ people were routinely roused by the police when congregating in gay bars. We were forced into secrecy and forbidden to marry. Our livelihoods were forfeited if we were outed at work. Our children could be taken from us. Transgender people were driven into lives of silent misery or suicide.
It took a profound and incredibly brave social movement involving people of color, students, women, unions, gays, transgender people, and religious leaders from the late 1950’s through the 1970’s to change this picture. Progress on civil rights in America was paid for in blood, prison, and family alienation. I know as I was a small part of it all.
Decisive steps regarding civil rights required the federal government and the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and realize the fundamental ideals of the U.S. Constitution, i.e., equality and due process under law. Fundamental change required amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in landmark cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) which ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional; Roe vs. Wade (1973); and Lawrence vs. Texas (2003) that declared state sodomy laws to be unconstitutional. The right of marriage for same sex couples began with the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision in 2003.
We cannot sink into despair and useless rage, but rise like the generation of the 1960’s and 70’s into a purposeful, dedicated national movement. We must organize and defeat every single GOP and anti-choice candidate running for office. We must peacefully protest and march in the streets. Write postcards, get involved with texting, hold meetings, talk to your friends, spread the message on social media, get our people signed up to vote. If the November midterms result in a majority of far-right members in Congress, we will fast become another tin-pot, authoritarian country with nuclear weapons like Russia.
After the slaughter of innocent children and teachers by a juvenile armed with two AR-15 rifles in Uvalde, Texas, I must leave you to ponder this analogy:
How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion – a mandatory 48-hour waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he’s about to do, a video he has to watch about the effects of gun violence, an ultrasound wand up the ass (just because). Let’s close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer, and beg him not to buy a gun.
It makes a hell of a lot more sense to do this with young men and guns than with women and healthcare. No one getting an abortion has killed a room full of kids in seconds.
We have a lot to do, everyone.
We cannot go back.