Every Woman Needs Access to Abortion
Why? Because being born with a uterus means decades of being vulnerable to an unwanted, and even dangerous, pregnancy
Paying subscribers will forgive me if I make this post available to everyone: the right to terminate a pregnancy was put on the block again this week. Nearly everyone I know is looking for ways to think about this valuable human right and not panic. So I am hoping we can use the comments section to share our thoughts and experiences. Now is also a great time to welcome new friends into our community, so please feel free to
The day before the Supreme Court of the United States heard Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the case that, if it doesn’t overturn Roe v. Wade (1973), will begin the unraveling of abortion as a human right—I was in the archives. I was reading a folder that I had read before when a small piece of paper tucked in between some otherwise ordinary correspondence caught my eye for the first time. A doctor’s name was written in pencil; there was a phone number, “$250,” and flight numbers to another place in the hemisphere.
On another day, I might have passed it by, but not the day before Dobbs would put what has been a fundamental women’s right for my entire adult life on the chopping block. Unmistakably, the scrap was a record of an abortion obtained outside the continental United States before Roe.
I found myself staring at it, my mind reeling backward and thinking about my own abortion history.
Truth? Although I came to sexual maturity after Roe, I’ve never had one. I am practically a life-long lesbian. I never had enough sex with men to make an unwanted pregnancy something I imagined could happen to me.
And then, looking at that scrap of paper, I realized with a jolt that, of course, I could have gotten pregnant and needed an abortion because I did have a little bit of sex with men in college. These were experiments (sorry, guys) made to test my options and see whether friendship s with men could ever translate into something else.
The answer was no. And then there were the two men—spaced about five years apart—who sexually assaulted me but who I fought off successfully. (One of those men went on to Harvard Medical School and is a successful pediatrician in Seattle today so that you know.)
And let me tell you, the consensual sex with men was premeditated and protected: one of the men I did a test flight with insisted that we both use contraception, so I trotted off to the university medical services to get it. Fortunately, it worked.
My point is this: any of these sexual encounters might have resulted in a pregnancy, and “unwanted” would not even have begun to describe my situation.
Why? Because it’s not just that random rapists—and family members who sexually assault their daughters, sisters, and nieces—don’t give women the option of using contraception. Contraception can fail during consensual sex, and it does. Depending on the method used, failure rates go from less than 1% to as high as 17% for barrier methods. When I was young and knew a lot of heterosexually active women, I observed that contraception failed with regularity. Three out of my four college roommates, all of whom used contraception, needed abortions somewhere along the line. One particularly close friend decided to up her game after pregnancy #1, got an intrauterine device (IUD)—and then got pregnant, which is a nasty situation to find yourself in whether you want to carry a pregnancy to term or not.
Having a child changes a woman’s life: arguably, if you care about children, it should change a woman’s life, and unless you are the Queen of England and have a squad of nannies on site, it is inevitable. And because most people’s resources are finite, and some very limited, it is worth underlining that unplanned children can plunge a household into poverty. The Mississippi Attorney General’s vague arguments about how his government would support women in bearing children fly in the face of that state’s history of actively keeping resources from the poor. In 2020, that state spent less on welfare benefits than any other state in the union. And can we talk about the “Mississippi appendectomy,” in which Black women went in for a minor medical procedure and left the hospital involuntarily sterilized?
But it gets worse. Pregnancies, planned and unplanned, put a mother’s life at risk to a major or minor degree, and teenage pregnancies have a specific subset of medical issues. As Sarah Wildman wrote in the New York Times last week, abortion bans (and making abortion inaccessible is as good as a ban for poor women and teenagers), where governments implement them, kill women routinely.
And then there are the pregnancies that result from malicious and felonious behavior. Rape and incest used to be the line that even the most hard-core conservatives would not cross, but now they are doing it. As Michele Goodwin and Mary Ziegler wrote in The Atlantic this week (November 29, 2021) in an article about the history of rape and incest exceptions,
The reason is power. Many anti-abortion activists never believed that a rape or incest exception could be squared with their deeply held belief that a fetus is a person. Today the anti-abortion movement is ready to ask for what it wants, and the GOP—and its allies on the Supreme Court—is willing to give it to them. What the movement wants, now as in the past, is the recognition of fetal personhood. And historically, recognizing personhood has often meant criminalizing the behavior of pregnant women, even when those women are victims of crimes themselves.
According to Gallup, 80% of Americans support the rape and incest exceptions. Should the Supreme Court allow these restrictive laws to be implemented, without exceptions for conception that occurs in the course of a crime, the majority opinion will be endorsing more than forced childbirth: it will be embedding minority rule in the Constitution.
Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has adopted children, asked why it wouldn’t be a good solution for women to gestate a baby and put it up for adoption. On no evidence, Barrett argued that adoption was so much “easier” now than it was in 1973. Let me be clear: adoption is one excellent way to make a family and in no way inherently inferior to any other form of child-rearing. But Barrett’s comment was one of the more egregious forms of gaslighting in which the conservative wing was, engaged throughout the hearing. It begs the question: easier for whom? Under what conditions is it easy to gestate a child in your body and give it away? To perhaps send it into foster care if it falls into the category of a less-wanted, or unwanted, child? To be that child and know that, however much you are loved by your adopted parents, that you are a person robbed of history and family?
I want to point out that Barrett was born in 1972: it’s not clear to me what she does and does not know about matters so intimate. But for those of us who remember the pre-Roe world, adoption was only ever hard (and still is) for those who wish to adopt, not for those who were forced to bear children and give them up for adoption. Girls were sent away, against their will, to gestate a child and give birth among judgmental strangers and then have it whisked away to parts unknown. And there has always been a premium market for white babies—but to say that it is now easy for the birth mother or that baby who grows up wondering where she came from?
Furthermore, it’s a lie that adoption is a simple alternative to abortion, and it has always been a lie. Ask any woman who knew she couldn’t, or wasn’t permitted by her parents, to keep that child and wonders whether that child is safe and well every day.
So this is the thing, my friends. Whatever happens in Dobbs (and experts are predicting everything from the Court overturning Roe to defanging the decision by throwing out the viability provision), abortion rights are under siege in this country. We need to fight back as we never have before—and if the right to a safe and legal abortion doesn’t move you, how does the Court striking down other civil liberties granted by prior Courts move you?
Because if SCOTUS overturns Roe, every civil right that Americans have gained since the 1940s is up for grabs. That’s not partisan propaganda: that’s the truth.
My abortion syllabus:
An interview with civil rights activist Heather Booth: “Are You Looking for Jane? From 1965 to 1973, the women of Chicago’s Jane Collective took a right to a safe abortion into their own hands. Literally.” (September 3, 2021)
An essay about the Republican far-right’s hypocrisy towards children: “The GOP Doesn't Love Children, It Loves Power: As the American South goes into a Delta-variant meltdown, we have a preview of how many kids Republicans are willing to kill to hang onto Trump's voters.” (August 13, 2021)
In which I cast the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream” as the origin of Republican mass disinformation: “Science Conspiracies Are a Right-Wing Tradition: This is how they work.” (July 21, 2021)
An interview with historian Neil Young about the role of evangelicals in today’s GOP: “Will Trump's Christian Army Retreat from Politics? White evangelicals believed that Donald Trump was part of a Divine plan--and then he failed them.” (January 22, 2021)
A pre-confirmation essay on the justice who will help seal the deal on restricting women’s right to choose: “I Am Ignoring Amy Coney Barrett: And you should too --because she will be confirmed, Trump is trolling us with this nomination, and we have an election to win.” (September 27, 2020)
An interview with Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick on how liberals were losing the Supreme Court: “Dahlia Lithwick talks to Public Seminar: In five weeks, the Supreme Court returns: what should we expect as conservatives scramble to get everything they want before election day?” (August 28, 2020)