I’m at my parents’ house, in my old bedroom; the kids and I arrived here from NY last night. The last time I lived here, I was eighteen; I’m fifty now. In some ways nothing has changed, in some ways, everything.
Since arriving, I’ve had conversations about the abortion ban with both my daughter and my father, and they both had some questions and some misapprehensions. Here are a few of the things I said to them, in no particular order. (If there are any errors of fact in what I say below, please correct me. Thanks.)
a) This ruling is not about no longer being able to use Medicaid to pay for abortions (under the Hyde Amendment, even before this decision, federal funds haven’t been able to pay for abortions, including under Medicaid but also federal employees, active duty military, and veterans).
Rather, it opens the door for states to actually ban abortion, and that is quite likely to happen in something like half of America’s states, and soon. We already have states like Texas, which through a legal loophole, has recently succeeded in banning abortions more than six weeks after conception — a point at which many women don’t even know they’re pregnant yet.
b) Whatever your moral stance on abortion, you should understand that the actual consequence of an abortion ban is not fewer abortions. The actual consequence is that more women will die. More women will die because of unsafe attempts at abortions, and more women will die because pregnancy and childbirth are actually dangerous — more women die from them than die having abortions. Those women will overwhelmingly be poor women of color.
c) If you actually want fewer abortions as your goal, worldwide research is clear that giving women both accurate information about birth control AND free access to birth control is by far the most effective technique for reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
(And yes, if you are against birth control as well, you have a problem here, but everyone who is okay with birth control and against abortion, this is where you should be pouring your energy to be effective in reaching your goals.)
(If what you really want is the right to control when and where women have sex, then I have nothing to say to you. Go away.)
d) Federal abortion rights in the U.S. have been based on a right to privacy that the Supreme Court has just decided is not constitutionally protected. This is the first in a domino list — three other major rights that are currently based on that same right to privacy doctrine are contraceptive rights, same-sex activity rights, and gay marriage rights. There will be large and powerful and well-funded groups coming after all of those rights, now that the privacy door has been kicked down. Be ready.
(d1) This is a bit of a tangent, and I am not a constitutional scholar, but I actually think that it might be that privacy wasn’t the best basis for abortion rights. It was what they could do at the time and in that cultural moment, so I will never say they shouldn’t have gone for it. They saved a lot of women’s lives.
But abortion rights should ideally be based, I think, on bodily autonomy. If someone is standing right next to me and desperately needs a kidney transplant to survive, no one can force me to undergo surgery to donate one of my kidneys. If a hundred people are dying around me for lack of blood or bone marrow, no one can force me to donate blood or bone marrow. I would very much like to know if there are court cases currently in progress that argue for abortion from the point of bodily autonomy, and if there are ways that we can support that argument.)
e) If you’re asking me why this is such a hot-button issue in America (and not elsewhere in the world), it’s a complicated answer.
e1) Part of it is certainly that some people here (in what is often a deeply Christian country) have a strongly felt belief that abortion is murder. While I generally hesitate to contradict people on their beliefs, I would point out that research shows that most people (and this includes me and all of my liberal friends) tend to believe what they were raised believing, and what the people around them believe. It is very very hard to get people to change their core beliefs.
But if you look at a political map, you can see very clearly that people believe what those around them believe; you can see it in the regionality — otherwise we wouldn’t have deeply red states and deeply blue cities. When people move from more homogenous areas (where everyone around you looks like you, and has a long family history in the region) to more heterogenous areas, there’s more opportunity for different ways of being to be presented to you, for your baseline beliefs to be challenged. So cities tend to be more diverse, and more blue politically. (This is actually a super-complicated topic, so please forgive me for just summarizing one tiny facet of it.)
Some of the people voting for the abortion ban are also barred from access to education (try reading Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated), and are heavily propagandized from childhood to believe not just that abortion is murder, but a whole host of flat-out lies about abortion, which leads to the fact that…
e2) …another piece of this is political — and I hate to say it, but both sides take advantage here. (I really really HATE ‘both sides’ arguments generally, but in this case, it applies.)
Republicans know that they can beat the pro-life drum and that will raise the fundraising campaign dollars, because no one ever went wrong running for office if they said it’s “to save the children!”
And Democratic politicians know that if they say they’ll defend a woman’s right to choose, they will get women turning out to campaign for them and vote for them — even if we have to grit our teeth to do so because we HATE the rest of that politician’s policies so much — because if you don’t have bodily autonomy as a woman, you don’t have anything, really.
If your husband has the right to rape you, if the state has the right to force you to risk your health and life in a pregnancy, if they can sell your body out from under you, you’ve already lost.
As a woman, I’m really damned tired of politicians on both sides using this a a ploy to keep themselves in office. This is a side note, but it enrages me, so there it is. I’m still going to grit my teeth and vote Blue, of course.
[I want to pause and apologize here to trans men and others who have uteruses and are subject to these same issues but who don’t identify as women. It does get complicated, because some of this is fueled by a real hatred and contempt for *women* in particular, along with Biblical exhortations for women to obey men, and so on. My language is clumsy at times, but you deserve just as much defending of your bodily autonomy, of course.]
f) Personally, I don’t have any moral problem with early abortions. I think they should be safe and legal; I also don’t find them morally or emotionally difficult. That early an embryo/fetus is potential, but any egg is potential, any sperm is potential, the fact that they’ve taken one more step of combining in the long, long process that would lead to viability outside a woman’s uterus doesn’t make sense to me as a hard line division. (Jewish doctrine is very different on this than Christian doctrine; an interesting comparison point.)
Many women get pregnant and miscarry at that very early stage without ever knowing they were pregnant; Nature is profligate with such experiments.
(f1) In fact, I don’t have a moral problem with abortion at any point up until where the fetus can be safely removed from the uterus, without any risk to the woman, and transferred to an incubator. My understanding of the science is that we’re not there yet — there IS no point where we can guarantee that we can safely remove a fetus without risking the woman’s health and life.
Maybe future medicine will be able to do that, and if a woman has chosen to stay pregnant up until that point (despite the often serious risks to her health during the pregnancy), then I can kind of theoretically imagine a reasonable moral argument for the government then having the right to equally value the potential life of the fetus over the woman’s preference — although that also gets into fraught issues of who owns the right to your own genetic material. But again, that is all SUPER-theoretical right now, and not relevant to this debate. I’m a science fiction writer, I have to think about future possibilities sometimes, but right now, there are no uterine replicators; we can’t do it.)
g) Speaking of late in the pregnancy, what about late-term abortion? Well, that’s generally a red herring in the political debates — the vast majority of abortions happen in the first trimester. The phrase ‘late-term abortion’ isn’t a medical term — it’s a political construct, and it’s misleading — it refers to any abortion that happens after 21 weeks, yet a lot of people believe it’s applied to late in the third trimester. So question that term, if people use it in these discussions, and be sure they understand what it’s referencing.
When a rare late-term (usually second-trimester) abortion happens, it is almost always a tragedy — this was generally a wanted pregnancy, and the only reason for termination is either because the life of the mother is at serious risk, or because the fetus will not be born viable. In the latter case, if you made the woman keep the pregnancy to term, she’d be putting her health and life at risk for the sake of giving birth to an infant that would die shortly thereafter.
h) Okay, so what should we do now, in the face of all this?
Kavi said, “If I can help fight this, I want to help.”
I told her, “You can absolutely help.”
Don’t despair, is one big thing. I quoted Dr. King to Kavi — “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But it bends only when WE bend the arc.
And sometimes, there’s backlash, and sometimes there’s the last dying gasp of the white supremacist patriarchy, and sometimes a lot of women, mostly poor women, mostly brown women, are going to suffer and die as the monster thrashes about. The monster knows that it is losing its grip on power and wealth, and it will do whatever it can to cling to those, for as long as possible.
But I really do believe that we are seeing the death-throes of the old order. Most Americans today are in favor of abortion rights. Most are in favor of contraception, and LGBTQ people getting to live their lives in peace, and gay marriage. The next generation is, I think, overwhelmingly in favor.
So what we need to do is hold fast and fight.
In the short term, that means helping as many of those who are going to be hurt by this as we can. Those of us in states with protected abortion rights should do whatever we can to aid vulnerable women in other states, knowing that often money is the biggest barrier to their getting the healthcare they need.
In the long term, it’s a democratic fight — it’s about electing people, from the school board on up, who will protect these rights. The local level is where you build the bench for the state level, which is where you build the bench for the federal level. So pay attention to those races. Support those who work to dismantle gerrymandered districts (and if you don’t know what gerrymandering is, take a minute and look it up — it’s one of the greatest threats to democracy out there).
Consider running if you can — never think you’re not smart enough or good enough (or male enough!) to be an elected official. I ran for office only because Trump was elected and Obama said ‘pick up a clipboard and run’ and a woman who volunteered with the local Democratic party heard me talking at a community event and asked me to run, and even then, it took several conversations before I could persuade myself that I might be good at the (unpaid) job.
Mostly, what running for office takes is the willingness (and ability) to give up some of your time to service, and you bringing all of your heart and your mind to the work.
If you can’t run yourself, support people who can, and especially, support women of color, disabled candidates, LGBTQ+ folks, working class and poor candidates — support the most marginalized candidates, because they will know in their bones who most needs their rights protected.
Guys, if there’s a woman in your life who wants to run for office — HELP HER. Take on more childcare, do more cooking, chip in cash so she can hire help at home if she needs it — free up her time so she can fight. Use that privilege for good.
But whatever your talents and abilities, there’s a place for you in this fight. Maybe you hate making phone calls, or hate going door-to-door — that’s fine. Write postcards to swing state voters. Talk to your moderate-to-conservative relatives. Host an event where you feed people while they do the work. Spread accurate information on social media, and counter disinformation when you see it.
Do the piece of the work that comes naturally to you, that you can sustain, and remember the metaphor of the choir — it’s okay if some singers take a rest periodically. The song will go on, as long as enough of us are in the choir. Rest when you need to, recuperate, and come back singing / swinging.
Okay, that’s most of what I said to them last night, this morning. There will likely be more.
Here’s a thread on my wall where people are posting resources — I encourage you to contribute to that, and to like / share / comment for visibility. That’s one thing you can do right now.