the body politic

The Betrayal of Roe

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The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments this week on the fate of Roe v. Wade — in which a phalanx of right-wing justices made plain their disdain for the law — has been a festival of finger-pointing and recrimination by those who were startled to have woken up in a world in which it looks very much like the right to legal abortion care will soon cease to exist at the federal level.

I understand the impulse to point fingers at individuals and factions, have myself often felt the gratification that comes from naming the bad guy responsible for a mess. It feels so very good, in such a very bad time, to hate Donald Trump, as well as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and also, somehow, Susan Sarandon. This was, surely, their fault, and also the fault of everyone with the shortsightedness and self-regard to have supported them or voted for them or worn a T-shirt with their faces on it.

But this impulse is itself shortsighted and self-serving, in that it allows us to evade the far more suffocating and incriminating reality: that we got to this terrifying place not just by some wrong turn made recently by one wrong person we don’t like, but by decades-long, systemic failures. The biggest and most damning of these is the failure to counter a regressive movement’s project to ensure minority rule and thus dismantle the rights and protections won by activists who labored over generations to gain them — abortion rights very much included. That failure in turn reflects a deeper one: an unwillingness to take the full humanity of women, of pregnant people, of Black and brown and poor people, seriously.

The overturn of Roe will not be about one failed electoral campaign or badly timed Supreme Court death or failure to retire — though as with any historical cataclysm, its timing and shape will have been determined by those factors, sure. But Roe — like the Voting Rights Act that was gutted in 2013, and the labor and climate and anti-corporate and gay-rights protections that have been and will continue to be rolled back — would not have been made vulnerable to these quirks of timing and personality had it ever had the kind of institutional, ideological, intellectual, and emotional muscle behind it that it deserved. Its loss will reflect years of inattention from those entrusted with its guardianship, by definition the people nearest to the top of our power structures, people who advertise themselves as invested in the rights and protections of people closer to the bottom, yet who have repeatedly failed to prioritize those people’s dignity and well-being — to even really see, much less care about, the daily, lived impact of abortion prohibition.

It wasn’t four years after Roe that the Hyde Amendment — which barred the use of government insurance programs to pay for most abortions — first passed, making the purported legal right to abortion care practically nonexistent for people who relied on federal insurance programs for their health care. Over the half-century that abortion has been officially legal on a federal level, it has become ever more inaccessible to people of color, to poor people, to immigrants, to younger people, to people in rural communities and in red states, thanks to Hyde and more than 1,300 state and local restrictions and regulations. Curtailed abortion access has made already imperiled populations ever more imperiled, all while Roe has officially stood.

Meanwhile, abortion clinics have been bombed and people shot and killed within them; providers have been brutally murdered, including at their places of worship. The Republican Party has strategized takeovers of school boards and state legislatures on campaigns built around the valuation of fetal life above female life, and still those who have screamed about all of this — who have jumped up and down and yelled that this was happening and that the Democratic Party should prioritize it and that the press should cover it because these were actual human beings — those people have been derided, including by people supposedly on the same side of the fight, as hysterics and blinkered single-issue voters.

The Democratic Party, including its presidents over the decades, has not taken seriously enough the threat to abortion rights. It’s not that these politicians didn’t officially support the correct thing: Barack Obama opposed the Hyde Amendment but also described the “tradition, in this town, historically, of not financing abortions as part of government-funded health care.” Again, this is not about Barack Obama any more than it is about Hillary Clinton (who offered one of the most powerful public explications of abortion as health care of any Democrat during her debate against Donald Trump and who is rumored to have devised the regressive “safe, legal, and rare” framework in the 1990s that cast abortion as a regrettably necessary evil, not a cornerstone of comprehensive health care) or about Bernie Sanders (who has remained a staunch opponent of Hyde or any abortion restriction throughout his career and has argued that voters could get past their differences on guns and abortion and find common economic ground, as if abortion is not itself an economic issue).

It’s about a Democratic Party that has, before and since Roe, included lots of politicians who believe in abortion rights and access but simply do not prioritize it, who have argued that their party should be more, and not less, open to those who actively oppose abortion if they are otherwise progressive on economic issues, as if those stances are compatible (they are not).

Democratic leadership chose not to fight vocally the Supreme Court nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, or Amy Coney Barrett as being an assault on legal abortion, even though the president who nominated them had directly promised anti-abortion groups “another two or perhaps three justices ” who would “automatically, in my opinion” overturn Roe. This was right out there for everyone on the broadly defined left to see, hear, and fight tooth and nail against. But again and again, those at the top of the party signaled that it was not a fight worth having and have remained quiet even as Republicans cast the ones who were fighting as deranged. During Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Nebraska senator Ben Sasse lectured on how there have “been screaming protesters saying, ‘Women are going to die’ at every hearing for decades.” Sasse was correct. There have been those protesters, and they have been treated as hysterics, not just by Sasse himself, but by the party that should have been letting their intensity guide them.

Make no mistake: Those protesters have been correct, for all the years and all the hearings. Yet Democrats have permitted an inaccurate, dishonest right-wing framework — the notion that abortion is some hot-button issue on which the country is sharply divided, when in fact the protection of the right to legal abortion is one of the most popular planks in a Democratic platform even in most red states — to keep them from making political fights about abortion. I’m sure that the argument behind this can be backed up by some pollster or numbers guy or consultant, but the big, unspoken reason is that most politicians, the majority of whom remain white men and many of the rest wealthy white women who themselves will never know inaccessibility of health care, find abortion icky and distasteful — because they find the bodies and lives and needs of people who need abortions icky and distasteful.

This was error and dereliction, repeated over decades and amplified by the press. The lies told by a right wing, and by a press corps eager to repeat them, were easily disprovable: Everyone knew where Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and Barrett stood and what they were put on the court to do, and yet we had to watch some bizarre performance during their confirmation hearings of pretending that they cared enough about precedent to let Roe stand. Supreme Court justices appointed by presidents who won fewer votes than their opponents dared this week to entertain the argument that a functional democratic process would surely protect the abortion rights of those who wanted them, should abortion go back to the states. They just sat there, with their ill-gotten seats, pretending that democracy was an intact remedy.

The voting and reproductive and labor rights now being undone were won over generations, not by those at the top of our systems, but by the most vulnerable bodies, working in coalition through their lives on a project that would extend well beyond their deaths, over centuries. The irony is that when those rights and protections were finally codified, they were put under the protection of a party and covered by a press that simply didn’t take any of that work, those sacrifices, those stakes, seriously.

I get it. It is so much easier to not have to take the reality seriously. It’s easier because the alternative — the absorption of how successful the right wing has been and will likely continue to be at turning back the clock on basic tenets of equality — would mean daily discomfort. It would mean listening to, and perhaps getting in line behind, leaders who come from vulnerable communities and not the elite climes so insulated from the realities of a terribly unjust system. It would mean making the stories of women and pregnant people central to our understanding of this country and its ability to thrive.

I hear many asking what comes next. Will there be protests? Will there be marching? Well. Yes. I hope; in fact, in the long term, I know. People will fight against this because history has shown us that any current level of scorn for resistance moms or woke mobs or the dirtbag left simply does not matter — does not figure — in the scope of the movement for greater liberation for more people.

But will that movement produce satisfying results in many of our lifetimes? I am afraid not. Because the failure to understand or reckon with that drive for liberation — and more, the failure to understand or reckon with the drive to squelch it — has now left millions of people fucked for a very long time. The finger-pointing that we’re going to do for days and weeks and months and years is another iteration of our failures to recognize what’s actually in front of us. Because with easy demonization comes the fantasy of easy salvation: If one terrible person broke it, surely one other wonderful person can fix it. But that’s not true. There is no one politician, no one activist, no single protest or perfect approach to activism, that will offer any quick remedy here.

Instead the future is messy and sad and difficult and extremely bleak. If the Supreme Court does indeed strike down Roe, many of us will not live to see its reverse. These rights were decades in the winning, decades in the undoing, and will again be decades in the remaking.

Yet this does not mean despair or accepting defeat, which would be yet another instance of giving in to short-term comfort and ease. It’s incumbent on us to not check out, to not give up, as it will be tempting to do on most days: to not evade responsibility by shifting the blame to others, but instead to face the future with the respect owed to our forebears and a crystal clear vision of who is going to be suffering right now and in the coming years. To settle into the work ahead, knowing that the answers won’t come in the form of a superhero candidate or a single election cycle, but rather in a rethinking of who’s authoritative and who’s hysterical; of who should be at the center and who should be at the margins; in staying committed through both wins and losses because people’s lives, and not just our own grievances, are at stake. We must reimagine whose lives and experiences should guide us into a future that must, now, be different from our recent past.

The Betrayal of Roe