“The threat is real and imminent” – July 3, 1989, Pat Riviere, lobbyist for the Maryland Chapter of the National Organization for Women.
That was the sound bite that the television journalists took from my statement at a press conference responding to the US Supreme Court’s decision that day on Webster v. Reproductive Health Services – a ruling that allowed states to restrict access to abortion. That day in 1989, the court upheld a Missouri law that imposed restrictions on the use of state funds, facilities and employees in performing, assisting with, or counseling about abortions. In short, the Supreme Court decision allowed states to restrict access to abortion in ways that had previously been thought to be forbidden under the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established the right to abortion as a constitutional right.
We pro-choice advocates knew then, 33 years ago, that rights won are never rights secured. I was right about the threat to Roe, but wrong about the timing. So, I was not surprised. But, I was sickened. There is no way to prepare for a Supreme Court decision that abolishes federal recognition of a constitutional right that Americans have enjoyed since 1973. What rights will be next? Gay marriage? Contraception? The radical right has already gone after voting rights, putting in place state laws that restrict voting and gerrymandering congressional districts to assure that only Republicans can get elected.
Make no mistake, the June 24, 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that abolished Roe is not about abortion. It is not about the “sanctity of life” or “protecting the unborn.” It is about power and control. Women with means and connections will always find a way to have an abortion. It is poor women, brown and black women who will suffer the most.
Already a handful of states have laws that do not just restrict or ban abortions, but are draconian and punitive, laws turn people into criminals for seeking the health care that they need, laws that establish vigilante justice. I doubt that anyone chooses to have an abortion the way you might choose a red dress or a blue dress. The choice is more like an animal caught in a trap choosing to gnaw off their leg to survive. Only the animal caught in the trap can make that decision.
I am not a fan of Roe and neither was the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I believe that bodily autonomy is an essential unconditional liberty. If you do not own yourself absolutely, you are nothing. Writing in the 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart case which challenged a federal law that had banned so-called “partial birth abortions,” Ginsburg wrote:
“[A]t stake in cases challenging abortion restrictions is a woman’s ‘control over her [own] destiny.’ Their ability to realize their full potential, the Court recognized, is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.'” She continued, “Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”
I believe that abortion should never have become a political issue. I don’t believe that life begins at conception, but do respect the right of others to hold that belief. There is no scientific answer to the questions of where life begins and where life ends. The answers are religious or faith beliefs. And religious doctrine has no place in our secular democracy. Our country was founded on the principle of separation of church and state.
So, what am I going to do as I live forward in this new reality? I will do whatever I can for as long as I can to fight for equality, for each person to have equal protection under the law, and that means the right to health care decisions. I will vote. I will protest. I will follow a new generation who now has to take up the banner for equal rights.
I am pro-choice, not pro-abortion. Fortunately, I have never had an unwanted pregnancy and it is impossible for me to know what decision I would make about continuing that pregnancy. All I am certain of is that I want – I demand – the right to make that decision about my health care. A fertilized egg, an embryo is not a human being. Those who oppose abortion have no right – none – to call themselves “pro-life.” Call yourself anti-abortion or anti-choice or pro-fetus. It’s time to take back the language. No one does that better than Marge Piercy in her powerful 1980 poem:
RIGHT TO LIFE
by Marge Piercy
A woman is not a basket you place
your buns in to keep them warm. Not a brood
hen you can slip duck eggs under.
Not the purse holding the coins of your
descendants till you spend them in wars.
Not a bank where your genes gather interest
and interesting mutations in the tainted
rain, any more than you are.
You plant corn and you harvest
it to eat or sell. You put the lamb
in the pasture to fatten and haul it in to
butcher for chops. You slice the mountain
in two for a road and gouge the high plains
for coal and the waters run muddy for
miles and years. Fish die but you do not
call them yours unless you wished to eat them.
Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman.
You lay claim to her pastures for grazing,
fields for growing babies like iceberg
lettuce. You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.
At this moment at nine o’clock a partera
is performing a table top abortion on an
unwed mother in Texas who can’t get
Medicaid any longer. In five days she will die
of tetanus and her little daughter will cry
and be taken away. Next door a husband
and wife are sticking pins in the son
they did not want. They will explain
for hours how wicked he is,
how he wants discipline.
We are all born of woman, in the rose
of the womb we suckled our mother’s blood
and every baby born has a right to love
like a seedling to sun. Every baby born
unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come
due in twenty years with interest, an anger
that must find a target, a pain that will
beget pain. A decade downstream a child
screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched,
a firing squad is summoned, a button
is pushed and the world burns.
I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.