Note—A version this first appeared on my blog back in its relative infancy in 2007. And I have re-run it when the simple right of meaningful reproductive choice has seemed particularly threatened. The post was drafted in response to an appeal from NARAL Pro-Choice America for stories about life before Roe V. Wade for use in a new campaign in defense of women’s right to choose, which back then unexpectedly seemed under attack again. This is one of those times. Just this week the Supreme Court with two abortion opponents nominated by Donald Trump replacing two committed defenders of choice announced that it will hear an appeal to uphold a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks and could undermine the Constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade. Then Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed into law one of the most extreme six-week abortion bans in the US.
The Roe v Wade decision did not come out of thin air--it was the result of prolonged and militant action by feminists--a victory hard won and not just benevolently granted.
Back in 2007 we were in shock that rights considered firmly and irrevocably won were once again under attack. Fourteen years later that attack has become a tsunami. Numerous attempts to sharply curtail abortion in several states were routinely over-turned in Federal Courts. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law by a 5-to-4 margin, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. providing the decisive vote. His concurring opinion, which expressed respect for precedent but proposed a relatively relaxed standard for evaluating restrictions, signaled an incremental approach to cutting back on abortion rights.
The Supreme Court is now packed with abortion opponents likely to give short shrift to Chief Justice John Roberts respect for well established precedent.
But since Trump nominees Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justices Anthony Kennedy and the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg abortion rights have never been so threatened. Kavanaugh got on the Court last year in time to dissent to Justice Roberts’ opinion.
Now a well-oiled machine has produced votes in several states with gerrymandered Republican super majorities and compliant governors are in competition with each other to pass the most draconian virtual abortion bans—so called heartbeat bills. Old promises of so-called mainstream right-to-lifers that they would never criminally charge women have been cast aside. In Georgia every common miscarriage could result in a criminal investigation and even traveling out of state to obtain a legal abortion would be a crime. Doctors would face 99 year sentences in Alabama and in several states family members, friends, and pro-choice advocates could be criminally charged with abetting an abortion for acts as simple as making a phone call, providing funds, or driving to an appointment. In some states even the narrowest exceptions for rape, incest, fetal viability or the health of the mother have been eliminated. Legal experts say that the language in some bills could result in a 12-year-old rape victim being charged with murder and face the death penalty.Handmaidens and others protested at the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery.
The point of all of these bills is simply to get a case—any case—before the Supreme Court so that the new majority there could completely over-turn Roe v. Wade. In anticipation of that states like Illinois are moved to protect abortion rights by enshrining them in state constitutions. If Roe v. Wade was overturned simply to allow states to exercise the power to enact their own restrictions, under the Federalism long touted by conservative pro-abortion states could also set their own laws protecting women’s rights. And that was the best the anti-abortion movement could have hoped for even two years ago.
Now, however, they have a reasonable hope that a Supreme Court decision will not just return jurisdiction over abortions to the states but will rule for personhood from conception or at least so early in fetal development that women would have no functional rights. That was the unattainable Holy Grail of the most extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement—until now. If the Court makes that ruling it would open the door to Federal legislation outlawing abortion under the same 14th Amendment “equal protection under the law” provisions used in Civil Rights and voting rights cases. While that is not likely with Democrats now in control of Congress and the White House, it could become a threat if Republican voter suppression laws and gerrymandering of upcoming Congressional seats give them a path to return to power.With educated and middle class white women overwhelmingly supportive of reproductive health, both sides have battled for support from Black and Latina women. Abortion foes paint the pro-choice movement as a genocidal attempt reduce Black births. Supporters argue that effective and safe access, often denied as much by income and health care availability as by law is essential to empower Women of Color.
That is the desperate situation women—and men who truly love and respect women—find themselves in today in the United States. But they are not taking the attacks lying down. From mass Handmaidens demonstrations to marches, rallies, and organizing at the polls new resistance is rising.
We will not return to the conditions described in this old blog post.
It was 1971 in Chicago. We’ll call her Ellen. She was a friend from college, tall and willowy with Italian Renaissance brown hair. She had a chorus part in an experimental rock cantata by night and waited tables by day. She was not my girlfriend. I wished she was. I was a forlorn looking hippy in a cowboy hat and bright orange goatee, the dopey/quirky best pal in a romantic comedy—the guy who moons around and ends up helping the bad boy with the megawatt smile get the girl. We met for dinner about once a week and sometimes went out for a drink after her show on a Saturday night.
I came over to her place for dinner one night, Liebfraumilch in a stone bottle in hand. She was crying. “I’m pregnant. I don’t know what to do.” I held her and comforted her. I didn’t ask who the father was. She didn’t volunteer. It was, after all, the lingering twilight of the ‘60’s.
But I was on the staff of the old Seed, the Chicago underground newspaper. I had connections. I knew people who knew people.
Those people were the Jane Collective, semi-secret action group of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union who defied Illinois law and arranged safe abortions. In later years I got to know names and faces of some of them. They were true heroes in a desperate time.I knew people who knew people. Those people were Jane.
I helped Ellen get in contact with Jane. They arranged for her to see a cooperating doctor. She had to go alone to the appointment, where she was given a chemical abortifacient. I waited for her in her apartment.
The procedure was as safe as possible, but the cramping and pain from the induced miscarriage was serious in Ellen’s case. It lasted three days. I stayed with her the whole time. We were afraid to seek further medical help. Other women had been arrested in hospital emergency rooms.
In the end, the procedure was effective. Ellen recovered. She got on with her life. She went off the next summer on some high adventure and I never saw her again. I got on with my life.
Within a few years, Illinois revised its laws in response to Roe v. Wade and safe abortions in clinical settings became available. Jane dissolved. But I will always remember Ellen’s needless ordeal and will never knowingly allow another woman to suffer so.