The history of women in America before Roe v. Wade is a history of blood.
When Caroline had an abortion in 1963, she went alone to a “ramshackle little house” in a disreputable neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio. Later, in her college dormitory, she labored for twelve hours, alone, and began to bleed uncontrollably. “There was more blood than I ever imagined,” she told the Cut. When, at last, she overcame her fear of seeing a doctor for the aftereffects of the abortion, she was told her life had been at risk.
A reader of Ms. recalled his mother telling him that, after an illegal abortion in her teens, she bled so profusely that her boyfriend at the time collected newspapers for her to sit on, as she waited out the pain in a hotel room, unable to seek medical care without facing potential criminal charges.
In 2018, after decades of erosion, the last levee protecting reproductive rights in the U.S. seems poised to break. The impending retirement of Anthony Kennedy, and his imminent replacement with a Trump-appointed Supreme Court judge, seems to portend the end of Roe v. Wade, which struck down anti-abortion laws in forty-six states and the District of Columbia in 1973.
The United States government, seeking to restrict women’s reproductive rights, is bucking a global trend, as countries that have criminalized abortion for decades begin to ease their stringent laws in the face of determined feminist outcry.
Just two months ago, across the Atlantic, women all over Ireland rose up in celebration of a hard-won victory: By an overwhelming margin, the country’s 3.2 million registered voters supported a referendum to overturn a 1983 constitutional amendment that effectively outlawed abortion. From as far away as Sydney and Tokyo and Los Angeles, members of the Irish diaspora returned home to vote on May 25 in favor of a woman’s right to choose, detailing their journeys on social media. The voters, arriving to the whoops of supportive crowds, served as a direct parallel to the women who for decades took lonely journeys out of their home country to get abortions.
“We have voted to provide compassion where there was once a cold shoulder, and to offer medical care where once we turned a blind eye,” Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said in a speech the morning the results were announced.
Last month, in Argentina, a bill to decriminalize abortion narrowly passed the lower chamber of that nation’s Congress, and is currently under debate in the Argentinian Senate. The decriminalization campaign was driven by a multiyear wave of feminist activism, in a movement entitled “Ni Una Menos (Not One Less),” that has demanded a stop to the needless deaths of women at the hands of male partners and as a result of unsafe illegal abortions. Argentina’s vote comes just under a year after Chile voted to reverse its absolute prohibition on abortion, despite vehement opposition from Catholic groups in that country.
In Argentina, jubilant crowds of women in city squares celebrated the passage of the decriminalization bill, wearing the signature green bandanas of Argentina’s abortion rights movement; in Ireland, videos of women weeping with joy at the referendum’s outcome flooded social networks.
Here in the United States, the mood among women’s rights advocates is justly somber. With more than 60 percent of the public indicating, in recent polls, that they wish to see the decision remain intact, the coalition in charge of the government seems to be salivating to fully strip women of access to abortion, at which a series of increasingly restrictive state laws has already chipped away. The legal groundwork for a challenge to Roe is already being laid. In Iowa, Louisiana, and Mississippi, state legislatures have advanced strict limits on abortion that could wind up being the instruments in a Supreme Court case — one decided by a conservative majority.
This prospect is the fulfillment of an official promise by the administration. In February, Vice President Mike Pence told the Susan B. Anthony List & Life Issues Institute, an anti-abortion group, that a change to “the center of American law” would happen “in our time.” Now it’s July, and that time seems near at hand.
But a change in the law is only that. It doesn’t change human nature — or desire, or love, or desperation, or disease, or loss.
There are as many ways to get pregnant as there are to have sex: in bliss, in recklessness, in despair, in traumatic circumstances. The end of legal abortion in states across the country won’t end rape or domestic abuse; it won’t create more money in families’ budgets for more children; it won’t make birth control more effective or affordable. The end of legal abortion doesn’t mean the end of the consumption of alcohol or drugs; it doesn’t mean the end of heated trysts on stairways and in offices and parking lots and narrow, overheated bedrooms. There were extramarital affairs before 1973 and there will be extramarital affairs after Roe is overturned. The end of legal abortion is merely the end of legal abortion. It won’t change the number of wombs yearly inseminated in this country.
But when Roe is overturned, more women will die.
There will be unwanted pregnancies carried to term with severe complications or postpartum infections. There will be knitting needles and coat hangers and off-label pills. There will be secret decisions, with a bank balance open and a tear in the heart; there will be fledgling careers to preserve, marriages to save, traumas to expunge. There will be herbs, forceful massage, a sudden fall down a flight of stairs. And some of the women who do what they feel they must will die. Every year, across the world, nearly 70,000 women die as a result of complications from unsafe abortions. A country without legal abortion is not a country without abortion. It’s just a country in which more women die.
To know this is to know that what we face is a long walk into the dark, in the cynical, silencing, hideous, hypocritical name of the “sanctity of life.”
And the true cruelty of such laws becomes more clear when you know — as we know, because history is open to us such as it never has been before, a few taps of a keyboard away — that such laws always, always, always spare the wealthy.
There are planes to different states, just a few hundred dollars away. There are other countries with sterile, friendly clinics for the right man’s mistress, the right man’s wife, the right man’s daughter. There will be salvation, for those who can afford it, in the guise of a well-timed vacation to Europe or Canada.
For millions of American women, Roe v. Wade has already been functionally overturned. More than 400 state laws have been passed to restrict abortion since 2010, when a wave of conservative legislators and governors took power. The theoretical existence of a right means little to those who have no ability to act upon it — those who lack the financial ability or personal flexibility to travel long distances to receive access to abortion care. There is one abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, for a population of almost 3 million. Mississippi has one of the highest pregnancy-related mortality rates in the United States, and it is rising.
What’s more: Every law in the United States is enforced unevenly across racial lines. Anti-abortion laws won’t buck that trend. What woman is punished and what woman goes free; what woman lives, what woman dies; what woman can feed her children and what woman cannot — in America, little about these answers is incidental.
It’s difficult to know all this without feeling pure doom; difficult to look at your belly and know that its flesh will be beyond your control, that the soft, yielding, and familiar terrain of your own body will be bound by laws made by men who know their actions might cause you to die, and who do not care.
But all along the long, dark walk we face, there will be those who risk everything to help, in the tradition of those who have battled unjust governance throughout history. There will be women who fight in the streets and in the courts and in state legislatures. There are already networks of abortion funds, some hyper-local, some national, that finance the secret trips and the stays in the motels and the bus tickets and the plane tickets and the journeys home. There are open purses ready to pay the price for a woman not to have a child if she doesn’t want to. There will be women who swap abortifacient recipes; there will be, as there were before Roe, midwives and chiropractors and family doctors who will perform the procedure nearly a quarter of American women have already experienced, in secret, and under legal threat. Perhaps there will be a revival of the secret feminist network that provided underground abortions to the women of Chicago: All you had to do was pick up the phone, dial a certain number, and ask for Jane.
In time, and after many deaths, and irreversible losses; after blood, and pain, and shame, and careers prematurely ended, and women killed for getting pregnant, and women dying in childbirth, the ban — like Ireland’s and Chile’s — will be lifted. Any path to legislative reversal on the subject will be paved with women’s bodies. We know this. The “sanctity of life” touted by opponents of abortion is extended to an embryo but not to the woman who carries it. And that’s why, despite the seeming inevitability of a federal ban on abortion, women and the men who fuck them and love them will fight to the end; and if and when such a ban is imposed, we will claw our way out of that darkness, until we walk in free bodies again.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 6, 2018