Will the Body Become a Prison?

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

In the brief it submitted to the Supreme Court, the state of Mississippi did more than outline its case for banning abortions before a fetus is viable: It revised history. “The march of progress” has left Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey “behind,” attorneys wrote. Decisions in those landmark cases, which established a right to abortion and separately upheld that right, have been “undercut” by certain developments. “Today, adoption is accessible, and on a wide scale women attain both professional success and a rich family life, contraceptives are more available and effective, and scientific advances show that an unborn child has taken on the human form and features months before viability,” according to the brief. Mississippi’s attorneys have crammed several remarkable ideas into one sentence, among them that women these days have it all.

“They’re saying there’s no need because people like Amy Coney Barrett exist. Women can have big families and successful professional lives and there’s no need to choose,” the legal scholar Mary Ziegler told the New York Times. In a statement, Lynn Fitch, the attorney general of Mississippi, said as much. “A lot has changed in five decades,” she claimed. There was once “little support for women who wanted a full family life and a successful career,” she added. “In these last 50 years, women have carved their own way to achieving a better balance for success in their professional and personal lives.”

Fitch sells purposeful fiction. Two years of economic hardship pushed women workers out of their jobs by the tens of thousands. Those who wish to return to their professional lives may find the way blocked, both by traditional gender expectations and the absence of universal paid leave. Mississippi now seeks to add another burden to women’s lives. Women’s ability to control their reproduction is not central to their professional or personal success, the state insists, contradicting both the available research and basic common sense. Should the court uphold Mississippi’s abortion ban, justices will give the conservative movement what it has wanted for years: the body as a prison. Few will escape.

During oral arguments in the Mississippi case on Wednesday, Justice Barrett suggested blithely that adoption could replace abortion. “There is without question an infringement on bodily autonomy, for which we have another context like vaccines,” she said to the attorney for Jackson Women’s Health, the abortion clinic Mississippi is trying to close. “Why didn’t you address the safe-haven laws, and why don’t they matter?” Safe-haven laws allow a person to surrender a child at birth. They don’t spare anyone a pregnancy. That may not trouble the justice, but it should trouble everyone else. The burdens imposed by pregnancy and by a vaccine mandate are not equivalent. Pregnancy is dangerous; vaccines are not. A person who refuses a vaccine imperils both themselves and others; a person who refuses to be pregnant imperils no one alive.

Yet Barrett and Mississippi must minimize the risks of pregnancy to keep up a broader pretense. They can say they dream of a bright future where women are not only safe but have learned to balance family and career with equanimity. The real world is less comforting. Women do not have it all. Those such as Barrett, a mother of seven, are the exception, not the rule, and the reason isn’t hard to guess. Barrett comes from family money. She has held the kinds of jobs that pay well and provide parental leave. Most women aren’t so fortunate. Strip them of the right to control the size of their families, and they will lose one of the few ways they can control their lives. They will not be able to raise seven children and ascend to the Supreme Court. They will struggle and fall more deeply into poverty, and states like Mississippi will not raise them up.

If Mississippi gets its way, the state will set a far grimmer future in motion. Our present reality is not much different. The anti-abortion movement has been grinding its opponents down for five decades. It has already forced a collective indignity on everyone who can become pregnant. Our bodies are subject to public debate; as a result, the body’s contents feel, often, like public property. Should states gain the right to force women to stay pregnant, they will turn the body against its owner, trapping a living person for the sake of a person who does not yet exist. Horror sets in when this future is contemplated. No longer would I belong to myself. My body might no longer be an ally but a trap. Even so, I, like Barrett, stand a better chance of escape than most. Millions more may lose whatever choices they had.

On days like Wednesday, despair is a real temptation. Despair and fatigue at being forced to defend the integrity of one’s body and choices. Yet those feelings can amount to surrender. Anger offers something closer to salvation. Anger can galvanize. Anger fights. It can defend the truth of the body against those who would make it a prison. The body can be a force too. It can take over a street, occupy a building, and break an unjust law. The right wants to slam the door on everyone who can get pregnant. For a moment, in some places, it may even succeed. But not forever, not if bodies resist.

Will the Body Become a Prison?