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Yesterday, the Senate failed in what should have been a very easy task: Voting to protect the most basic right imaginable, which is the ability to determine whether you allow a growing being to take up residence in your uterus for almost a year, and then risk your life and permanently change your body bringing a child into the world. The Women’s Health Protection Act failed to secure even a majority of votes in the Senate, let alone the 60-vote supermajority necessary to override a filibuster. This would make for a shameful moment no matter what, but coming as it does on the eve of the Supreme Court ending the nearly 50-year norm of abortion rights in America, it’s an insult and an abomination.
On Saturday May 14, abortion rights supporters will march in cities around the country. I hope you’ll join if you can. I hope it makes a difference.
But I worry that, if Roe is overturned and half the country moves to heavily restrict abortion or outlaw it entirely, we will be badly divided, but we will also adjust. Yes, abortion rights will be a galvanizing force in the midterms, hopefully to the benefit of Democrats (they aren’t doing much good, but they are at the very least a bulwark against the very worst). Abortion rights may continue to galvanize liberal voters in 2024. But the reality is that people adjust to injustice — especially when that injustice is felt most heavily by the least powerful; especially when that injustice reinforces what many people believe to be the natural order of things; and especially when that injustice is carried out in private, and resisting it is heavily stigmatized.
The thing about abortion is that very few people expect they will ever have one. Even many (most?) pro-choice people, I would guess, do not anticipate needing an abortion until they need one. They may want to keep the right intact for both themselves and others, but most people don’t plan to have abortions. That’s why the now decade-old debates about people having to purchase extra insurance riders to cover abortion were so absurd: Virtually no one plans for an abortion far into the future, and most people don’t suspect it will happen.
Some of that is willful ignorance; much of it is the typical inability of human beings to accurately assess their own risk-taking and plan accordingly. Some of it ignorance of the future self — the assumption that one wouldn’t ever have an abortion even in the case of an unintended pregnancy, followed by an actual unintended pregnancy and the realization that, actually, one very much would have an abortion in this case. And in some circumstances, the choice to end a pregnancy doesn’t feel like much of a choice at all — or perhaps an exceptionally unfair one, made after wanting a child, and made under the most wrenching of circumstances: A threat to one’s own life or health; a fetus with severe problems.
Intellectually, we know these cases exist. Individually, these are not possibilities that most people entertain.
Yes sure, those of us who focus our lives around abortion rights, we think about these things. We know lots of people who have had abortions; we talk about abortion openly and without shame and often with great urgency. But out in the normal world where people aren’t obsessed with politics and have no idea what the senate just voted on? Abortion still exists in a squishy universe of discomfort and invisibility, even among people who are ostensibly pro-choice.
When they enter the voting booth, are most Americans considering the potential worst-case-situation needs of a future child pregnant before she’s ready? Do many men stop to consider that a partner may need an abortion to save her life, that their existing children could end up motherless? Do most women believe that an unintended pregnancy may be in their future, or is that a stroke of bad luck they don’t consider, or perhaps a fate they, consciously or not, slot into the mental box for irresponsible women, not this woman?
Women who oppose abortion rights have abortions. Some women who have had abortions go right on to continue opposing abortion rights for others. Human beings are exceptional at making ourselves the exceptions — my abortion was justified; other women are just irresponsible.
Plus there is the fact that abortions happen in private, and abortions are typically invisible to everyone except the person having one — that is often the whole point, to keep this choice private, and to keep one’s life as it was before an unintended pregnancy interrupted it. And the injustice of limiting abortion rights is largely invisible, too. We know what that injustice begets: Women who die when they didn’t have to, but much more often, the inability to obtain an abortion means a doubling-down on existing problems. It means falling deeper into poverty and staying there longer; it means a person’s existing children do worse than they would have; it means staying in abusive relationships longer. We know from decades of research that abortion rights have been overwhelmingly beneficial to women, children, families, and society more broadly. But it’s hard to show the individual would-have-been. And the outcome of not having an abortion is, usually, having and raising a child. Very few mothers, even those who are forced into it, are going to publicly speak about all they lost because they were made to have a baby. I would guess that most people forced into childbearing can’t even articulate exactly what it is they lost, because who knows where you would have been in the what-if?
The discriminatory quality of abortion is also invisible. It is true that not just women have abortions; nonbinary people and trans men have them too. But overwhelmingly, people ending pregnancies identify as women. And while abortion services benefit lots of people, efforts to curtain abortion rights are specifically focused on a return to traditional gender roles and gender hierarchies. That is: As a political force, the anti-abortion movement seeks to roll back women’s rights, and to push women out of public, political, and economic life. They understand that the primary way women have long been relegated to the private is through the reproductive capacity that women as a class are understood to have. That is why they focus so much on walking back reproductive rights rather than, say, supporting children: They know just as well as feminists do that when women as a class cannot make our own reproductive decisions, it gets much, much harder for us to participate in public life. We become much less self-sufficient and much more vulnerable. And men gain a significant advantage. Anti-abortion laws are misogynist laws.
But these laws aren’t necessarily understood as discriminatory. There are no “whites only” signs, or videos of state actors inflicting horrific violence on citizens, or beautiful and relatable couples denied the happiness of marriage. There’s no victory image, nothing that would make for a soft drink ad or a heartwarming photo on a news story.
There are horror stories, yes, but the names are removed, faces are blurred out, and those stories are often so extreme and so horrific that while the decent among us are shattered by them, few of us actually imagine that the story could be about us, or our child, or our most beloved.
That makes abortion rights a tough thing to get anyone other than dedicated pro-choicers fired up about, and it makes abortion rights a really tough thing to sustain a fight for in the long term.
Not that it’s impossible — women are doing it all over the world. But it’s tough to get people to feel that they have a personal stake in something most people would rather not think about, and would certainly rather not think about insofar as it applies to them personally.
It is also the case that unintended pregnancy, like so many other hazards of human life, is not an equal-opportunity disruptor in a vastly unequal country. While women have abortions for all sorts of different reasons, the number-one driver of abortion is women being pregnant when they don’t want to be. Which means that the number-one best way to prevent abortion is to have the ability to not get pregnant unless you want to get pregnant. And that ability, in this ridiculous country, remains a privilege concentrated among those who have the most: women who are college-educated, who are relatively affluent, and who are white. These are the women who have the easiest time accessing contraception; who don’t carry as much of the baggage that comes with generations of forced and coerced sterilization and reproductive experimentation; who are less likely to struggle with the compounding problems of homelessness, drug abuse disorders, and community and at-home violence; who have stable addresses and a car to drive to the doctor’s office and a trusted OB/GYN and the kind of job that will give you the afternoon off for a doctor’s appointment.
Unintended pregnancy rates in the US are incredibly skewed. Women who become pregnant accidentally are much more likely to be low-income, much more likely to be Black or Latina, and much less likely to have a college degree. Abortions reflect that skew (although among women who are pregnant unintentionally, the small minority of women who are white, affluent, and college-educated are more likely than less-privileged women to end their unintended pregnancies; that decision in turn helps to keep them well-off).
I keep thinking about this recent Covid study. It found that white Americans became less fearful of Covid when they learned that people of other races were disproportionately hit by the disease. Abortion rights advocates are, rightly, pointing out that women of color, rural women, women in conservative states, and low-income women will be the hardest-hit by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, and by any subsequent abortion bans. It is perhaps that very fact that, in part, is allowing this to happen in the first place. But what if that very fact also undermines the response, and undercuts a sense of solidarity and concern for what should be a hugely galvanizing issue?
And there is, finally, the issue of shame. Many, many people have spoken out about their abortions, and that is powerful. But for all the effort to make talking about abortion normal, those conversations only extend to people who are interested in listing. Overwhelmingly, abortion isn’t something women speak about openly, despite the fact that one in four women will have an abortion in her life. While you might ask for the afternoon off to have a root canal, you’re probably going to be less specific if you’re going in for a pregnancy termination. And that’s ok, these are private matters. But abortion is also a matter cut through with stigma and shame, the kind of thing that comes with a cost if you disclose it (and I initially typed “if you admit it;” the sense that abortion is something that is admitted infuses the words of even those of us who don’t believe there’s anything shameful at all about abortion).
When abortion is illegal and punishable, the costs to disclosing abortion ratchet up. There are the obvious ones: Having one of the most intimate moments of your life investigated; facing potential criminal penalties. But there’s a much broader universe of more subtle costs. There is the fact that any person who ends a pregnancy when it’s illegal is presumed to be a criminal engaging in something wrong and deserving of punishment. It is hard to imagine this act, despite being something women have done for much of human history and that a quarter of us worldwide will do, not being suffused with shame and fear when the very process of getting it done will require working outside the bounds of the law, working outside even of every other standard and common medical procedure around. And then who can you tell? Who can you trust? Who do you want to protect by not giving them information that could put them in a bad legal situation?
Criminalizing abortion doesn’t end abortion. But it does muzzle our ability to talk about abortions. And that badly constrains our ability to act.
Listen: I’ve been wrong before, and I am a terrible fortune-teller. It may very well be that this Supreme Court decision and the restrictive laws that follow will make so many people so angry that we will collectively say fuck it and we will become louder and more aggressive and less apologetic and wholly unwilling to adjust to the new world that’s coming. That’s certainly where I plan to be. I know I won’t be alone.
But I do worry that far too few Americans will think to join us until it’s too late.
p.s. This is the free weekly version of this newsletter, which is entirely supported by readers like you. If you’re enjoying it, please do consider upgrading to a paid subscription.
I had two when I was younger. No shame. No stigma. No regrets
I'm always about to write, then I read your posts. You say exactly what I am thinking. I wish you were not just talking to those of us who already share your beliefs. Getting through to others is so difficult, even if you can get an audience of one. Thank you anyway.