Abortion Is About Freedom, Not Just Privacy

It wasn’t a protest, but a defense against a protest. For much of 1989, the year I turned seventeen, I would wake up on Saturdays, at around 6 A.M., and head to a local abortion clinic. The clinics in Buffalo, New York, where I lived, had recently become ground zero in the battle over abortion. Each day, anti-abortion protesters showed up, armed with signs showing images of what they claimed were aborted fetuses, and tried to blockade the clinic doors to prevent clients from entering. Our counter-protest aimed to get there first, and to form a moving picket that kept the protesters away and allowed clients to pass through.

By the end of the eighties, the war against abortion was in full swing. It had been revitalized by Reagan’s rise and the platform that his Presidency provided for a growing evangelical right. Gaudy televangelists decried “feminazis” and argued that abortion threatened women’s traditional roles as caretakers and mothers. A street movement of anti-abortion activists engaged in intimidation tactics, attempting to stop women from entering clinics. In upstate New York, the most prominent activist group was called Operation Rescue. Randall Terry, a former used-car salesman who became a born-again Christian in the nineteen-seventies, led it. Terry likened his crusade to the civil-rights movement and welcomed comparisons between himself and Martin Luther King, Jr. In an interview in 1989, he remarked, “The blacks were demonstrating for their own rights, and we are rescuing other people and standing up for babies’ rights. . . . There can be absolutely no compromise on this, any more than there was compromise on whether white southerners should have slaves.”

Failing to persuade women through conventional forms of protest, the anti-abortion right adopted increasingly violent tactics. In 1989, Terry said, “I believe in the use of force.” He added, adopting a more moderate tone, “I think to destroy abortion facilities at this time is counterproductive because the American public has an adverse reaction to what it sees as violence.” But the inflammatory rhetoric of Terry and the right in describing fetal tissue as “unborn babies” justified in the minds of protesters the growing use of force. According to Susan Faludi’s classic book “Backlash,” “between 1977 and 1989, seventy-seven family-planning clinics were torched or bombed (in at least seven cases during working hours, with employees and patients inside), a hundred and seventeen were targets of arson, two hundred and fifty received bomb threats, two hundred and thirty-one were invaded, and two hundred and twenty-four vandalized.” According to the Times, men opposed to abortion killed at least eleven people, including abortion providers, at clinics between 1993 and 2015.

A few months before my seventeenth birthday, my mother bought me a subscription to Seventeen magazine. It seemed an odd choice, given its conventional makeup ads and utterly normative portraits of white girls. I was in the midst of coming out as a lesbian and found the whole thing jarring. But, in the mix of ads and grooming tips, there were articles that captured my attention, including one about the erosion of rights for teen-agers. A small sidebar noted, as an example, that teen-agers were required to get parental consent before receiving an abortion. The issue struck me viscerally. I had been fighting constantly with my father and stepmother about curfews, smoking, and the socialists I was hanging out with. The idea that they might decide whether or not I had a baby was enraging, obliterating any notion of self-determination.

I had never thought much about abortion before, but I had thought often about pregnancy; my mother had said, almost in a whisper, that her grandmother had told her that, as soon as girls have their periods, they can’t let boys touch them. In Texas, where I had spent junior high, everyone knew that when some girls suddenly disappeared from school they were probably pregnant. During my freshman year of high school, a friend wore a coat every day until she, too, eventually disappeared. She had hidden her pregnancy for months before finally delivering a baby. It seemed to be only women and girls who suffered any consequence for pregnancy. Girls, not boys, disappeared from school. Girls, not boys, carried the weight of social stigma. Girls, not boys, had their entire lives turned upside down if they carried the pregnancy to term. It was terrifying; it was also radicalizing.

On those mornings in Buffalo, anti-abortion protesters trickled out of their cars wielding their grotesque signs. The protesters—white men accompanied by women and, in some cases, even children—yelled at patients who showed up for their appointments, saying that they were killing their babies. We chanted back, “Pro-Life, your name’s a lie, you don’t care if women die.” The clinic defenders, as we counter-protesters called ourselves, were a combination of campus activists, socialists, lesbians, and feminists—a motley crew of the Buffalo left. We had some inevitable tension with the owners of the clinic, who worried that our counter-protests might alienate patients, too. But, as the right escalated its tactics to shut clinics down, we came to feel that we were keeping the clinics open and allowing women to exercise a constitutional right.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has brought old feelings of astonishment and disgust back to the surface. The Court’s utter disregard for the rights of women and of trans and nonbinary people who have the capacity to become pregnant is shocking in the twenty-first century. In the text of the majority opinion—as, indeed, in the original 1973 Roe opinion—the rights of women as full citizens hardly seem to register.

Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote for the Roe-affirming majority in 1973, included a brief list of the potential detriments of forcing women to carry pregnancies to term:

Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a
distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent.
Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also
the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child,
and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already
unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases,
as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of
unwed motherhood may be involved.

In the recent majority opinion overturning Roe, Justice Samuel Alito makes the fantastical claim that a world hostile to pregnant women no longer exists. Alito contends that, in “many” cases, women now have access to maternity leave. (He doesn’t bother to mention that it is often unpaid.) He claims that medical care associated with pregnancy is covered by private insurance or government assistance. (He neglects to mention that many women must still pay large out-of-pocket expenses.)

Yet women should have the right to control their reproduction, not only because of the potential emotional or financial hardship but because it is a precondition to their full and free participation in our society. If women cannot dictate this most basic aspect of their being, then the Supreme Court has effectively consigned them to a distinctly secondary tier of citizenship. Alito rationalizes that the late arrival of civil rights for women makes those rights less real than if they had arrived earlier. He argues that the right to abortion, because it was enshrined only in the seventies, is not “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” He seems unworried that this might actually only serve to emphasize the profound misogyny endemic throughout American history; women did not even gain the right to vote until well into the twentieth century.

The original rationale for Roe relied on arguments about privacy. Blackmun, arguing that abortion should be permitted in the first trimester, wrote, “Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.” Of course, the right to privacy is crucial in mitigating the power of the state to interfere with personal decisions. But, beyond any notion of privacy, it is also important to protect the more fundamental freedom of women to control their own bodies. Even in the 1973 decision, women’s bodily autonomy goes largely unremarked upon. J. D. Vance, who is running to become a Republican senator in Ohio, recently argued, “It’s not whether a woman should be forced to bring a child to term; it’s whether a child should be allowed to live.” But the hard truth about the reversal of Roe is that women will be forced to bring a child to term. As Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” wrote, in 1969, “There is no freedom, no equality, no full human dignity and personhood possible for women until we assert and demand the control over our own bodies, over our own reproductive process.”

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