Elif Batuman, Edna Bonhomme, Hazel V. Carby, Linda Colley, Meehan Crist, Anne Enright, Lorna Finlayson, Lisa Hallgarten and Jayne Kavanagh, Sophie Lewis, Maureen N. McLane, Erin Maglaque, Gazelle Mba, Azadeh Moaveni, Toril Moi, Joanne O’Leary, Niela Orr, Lauren Oyler, Susan Pedersen, Jacqueline Rose, Madeleine Schwartz, Arianne Shahvisi, Sophie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Alice Spawls, Amia Srinivasan, Chaohua Wang, Marina Warner, Bee Wilson, Emily Witt
When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I was finishing the tour for my new novel, Either/Or. It’s a sequel to my first novel, The Idiot. Both books are set during my own college years, in the mid-1990s: a time when numerous people thought that sexism was over and it was the end of history. I wrote and abandoned a first draft of The Idiot in the early 2000s, publishing it only in 2017 – by which point Donald Trump, a familiar figure from my youth, was somehow in charge of the United States, and Roe was under serious threat, and I, on the eve of my fortieth birthday, was going around the country promoting a ‘debut novel’ about a painful crush I had had when I was eighteen. It was a rich and instructive experience.
At an event in Berkeley, a man in the audience said there was a passage from the book he wanted to hear me read. During the intervening years, I have had such requests a handful of times, always from men, always involving a passage that turns out to have some kind of sexual content. But at that time I didn’t know better, so I opened to the page he named. The narrator, Selin, is on a plane from Brussels to Budapest, and a flight attendant is handing out newspapers. All around her, businessmen are avidly taking newspapers, so Selin takes one, too.
From the International Herald Tribune, I learned that a ninety-five-hundred-pound elephant called Kika had been artificially inseminated in Berlin. The sperm had been taken from two male elephants and there was no way of knowing for certain which was the real father, but zoologists favoured Jumbo of Cleveland. Jumbo’s sperm had been flown to Berlin in a tiny cooler that was ‘hand-checked’ at airport security, because X-rays would have killed the sperm. So, that’s what newspapers were about.
A few people in the audience laughed. The man waited for them to stop. Then he pointed out that, although a lot of things had been happening in the world in 1995 and 1996, you wouldn’t know it from The Idiot: a novel in which, the one time the protagonist opens a newspaper, all she notices is an article about elephant insemination. Was that a deliberate decision to show the solipsism and self-absorption of Harvard undergraduates?
A year and a half later, in September 2018, I had a similar encounter at the Mantua book festival. The political mood, and my role in it, felt strangely familiar. Matteo Salvini, a far-right nativist Eurosceptic widely likened to Trump, had just become minister of the interior, and was sending away refugee boats and trying to expel the Roma. Meanwhile, here I was, still talking about my college novel. My event was the last on the programme, and workers were already dismantling the other stages, in a joyful and noisy fashion. The interviewer, a veteran journalist of international affairs and the Middle East, announced that he would preface our conversation by reading aloud. Even in Italian, I had no trouble recognising the excerpt. ‘A Berlino avevano inseminato artificialmente un elefante …’ I looked at him with astonishment. Why had he chosen that passage? It didn’t appear to be because it had delighted him. If anything, he seemed kind of irritated. His question was about what value I thought writing could have, in a world that I clearly found to be filled with absurd trivialities.
In my answer, both in Berkeley and Mantua, I talked about how, as a child, I had felt oppressed by the news: by the way the mood in the room shifted when men came on TV, to speak of the great deeds of other men, and by the aura of gravitas that surrounded these deeds, which seemed to annihilate every other aspect of life, the whole domestic sphere, all the things that children and women took seriously. In the world depicted by the news, the only reason millions of soldiers enlisted in foreign wars was political or economic self-interest – never to get away from their mothers or their lovers, or because someone had once pushed their father off a sidewalk. I just didn’t think that was reality. That was why I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, where the injustices experienced by women and children were accorded meaning and value, and with War and Peace, where the whole premise of the book was that you couldn’t explain war without recourse to domesticity and interpersonal relations. That was why I loved novels, and not newspapers. That was why I wasn’t a political writer.
Looking back, I see Mantua as a turning point. That was the last time I publicly said that the novels I loved as a teenager weren’t political, or that I wasn’t a political writer. I now know that there is nothing more political than the depoliticisation of the lives of women and children. This depoliticisation, effected on a wide scale, has now empowered a supposedly democratic state to force children to be born whom nobody, least of all the state itself, is equipped to love.
While I was in Mantua, I was reading Elena Ferrante’s third Neapolitan novel – the one that opens at the height of the student movement, around 1968. Elena is promoting her own autobiographical first novel, about the summer she was fifteen, when she didn’t get together with her crush, Nino Sarratore, and instead lost her virginity to his father. As someone who was also on a book tour at a politically fraught moment in Italy, promoting a first novel about a painful teen crush, I read these pages with great interest.
On Elena’s tour, every conversation and interview seems to end up at the scene with Nino’s father – at the ‘risqué pages’, which nobody describes as a rape or a trauma. One older male critic, having assured Elena that anyone who finds her novel risqué is an idiot who hasn’t read Henry Miller, gets drunk and assaults her in a lift. Meanwhile, Elena’s university friends are too caught up in workers’ rights to take her novel seriously. As one classmate puts it, ‘You did everything possible, right? But this, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels.’
Reading about Elena’s experience – about how she is made to feel that her book is either an inadequate version of more frankly sexual texts by men, or a bourgeois love story divorced from political reality – I recognised aspects of the way I had been made to feel about my book. And once the critiques were levelled at Elena’s book, I could more easily see where they were mistaken. The language of Henry Miller isn’t adapted to describe a teenage girl’s experience of sexual powerlessness. Elena’s experience isn’t lusty, bawdy or outrageous. It’s painful, squalid and chilling. It’s also deeply political. Nino’s father, a conservative columnist, eviscerates Elena’s novel in Italy’s biggest newspaper. Nino becomes a leftist columnist, and a successful politician, thanks to the support of all the brilliant women he has seduced. Later, he’s jailed for corruption, and everyone thinks his career is over; but he shifts to the right and ends up back in parliament. Does Elena end up in parliament? No. So it’s a political book. It’s a book about who ends up in parliament.
In an early scene in The Idiot, Selin finds out about government majors – that they exist, and that people call them ‘gov jocks’ – and she wonders: are these people going to be our rulers? It’s a line I remembered when I returned from Mantua to the US amid the furore surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Like millions of Americans, I listened to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a story about something painful, squalid and chilling that had happened to her when she was fifteen. Her story reminded me of Elena’s book tour, and my own: a grown woman having to appear before a large group, to talk about a shameful thing that had happened when she was a teenager – something she thought about every day, and was ashamed still to be thinking about, because she kept telling herself it had been nothing.
In his testimony, Kavanaugh yelled at the Judiciary Committee that he had ‘busted his butt’ in high school to be the basketball captain, get into Yale, go to law school, and become a judge. Ford, meanwhile, majored in psychology at UNC Chapel Hill. In her first year, she struggled both socially and academically. Was that because she hadn’t busted her butt? Was that why, unlike Kavanaugh, she hadn’t ended up on the US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit – why she hasn’t been asked to help decide whether the government should be allowed to prevent a pregnant migrant teenager from leaving a shelter long enough to get an abortion? Kavanaugh’s decision in that case was the death knell for Roe. The gov jocks were now our rulers.
Ford became an academic psychologist. She wrote her dissertation on the coping mechanisms of children. The coping mechanisms of children haven’t historically appeared in newspapers. They have appeared in psychology dissertations and in novels.
The newspapers, however, are changing. It was on the news that I heard Ford’s testimony, which helped me to look back at that passage from The Idiot and see all the ways in which it is political. It’s political because it’s a document of the vast, all-encompassing – one might call it intersectional – hierarchy that leads to environmental, racial and sexual exploitation: the hierarchy that empowers humans to put animals in zoos; the hierarchy that empowers Western zoos to extract elephants from formerly colonised lands and give them names like Kika and Jumbo; the hierarchy that empowers scientists systematically to rape female animals in order to control their reproduction (a particularly nightmarish process in the case of the elephant, whose reproductive tract is curved, and three to five feet in length). It’s the same hierarchy that empowers male-dominated courts to force women and young girls to remain pregnant against their will.
Having reached a new understanding of The Idiot, I knew I had to write a sequel. I had to go back to that time, to reconstruct and dramatise how thoroughly, on so many fronts, Selin was being steered away from the male-dominated game that we call ‘politics’. The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe had already been leaked when Either/Or came out in May. Going on tour allowed me to meet readers twenty years younger than myself, to realise how much more clearly they see the hierarchies, how ready they are to dismantle them. The definition of ‘politics’ that I grew up with is not long for this world. The people most invested in the hierarchies are doing everything they can to turn back the clock. But they know their days are numbered.
‘Trust women.’ These were the words of Dr George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas, who was murdered while at church by an anti-choice militant. This was in 2009, a year after I moved to New York City and just as my friends and I were forming light-hearted relations grounded on newly found sexual freedom. At the time, I was a public health student researching sex work, part of a radical community that championed a brusque feminism, that had no qualms about carnality and wielding sexual liberation as we saw fit. What happened to Dr Tiller in Kansas felt far away, but there were anti-choice advocates active in New York City too.
That summer, my friends and I, fearing that other abortion clinics, even in New York City, might be threatened, decided to do something. Throughout the city, we noticed adverts for ‘Forty Days for Life’: this organisation was encouraging anti-choice protesters to gather outside abortion clinics across the US, and to prevent pregnant people from entering them. Even in the Bronx, one of the clinics that provided abortion services to working-class Black and Latinx people was regularly being targeted by anti-choice zealots who were crass in their methods. The first time I went there, I could see a major divide between their side and ours. Most of them were white, religious and from outside the city; we were a multi-ethnic, New York City-based, progressive group. Every Saturday, the anti-choice group parked a van in front of the abortion clinic, and laid a row of pre-printed signs and images on the sidewalk. Our signs were handwritten, and said ‘Free Abortion on Demand’ and ‘My Body, My Choice’. We wanted to encourage pregnant people to feel they could safely walk into the clinic to seek an abortion and to discourage the anti-choice activists from ever showing up again. As challenging as it was to face them, especially knowing what they were capable of, after several months our coalition outnumbered them, and they stopped coming to the Bronx clinic.
This was a small and temporary win, one of the few I have witnessed in three decades of activism, but it showed that a grassroots network, outraged by Tiller’s death, could challenge the far right. Thirteen years later, the clinic is still open, but many in the US South have struggled. What would have happened if we had this same energy and network in Mississippi?
Since the Supreme Court decision, abortion rights groups have been helping pregnant people who struggle to get the procedure because they can’t find the cash or get time off work, or childcare, or the necessary transportation. By some estimates, 41 per cent of people of childbearing age in the US, those living in the South and the Midwest, will lose access to their nearest abortion clinic, meaning that many will have to travel hundreds of kilometres to reach a provider in another state. That alone will be costly, inconvenient and time-consuming.
But abortion rights should not just be framed as a matter of public health or a decision of last resort. Abortion is an act that should be freely available to people, no matter their reasons. ‘I want to read detailed narratives about people who needed abortions to escape impossible circumstances or to prevent needless suffering – but I also want to read stories about people who choose abortion freely and easily, simply because it was their right to do so,’ Maggie Doherty wrote in the Yale Review. This is the politics we need: unapologetic and bold. But, even more, we need finally to entrust people with full autonomy over their own bodies.
Hazel V. Carby
The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation to overthrow Roe v. Wade is the culmination of decades of mainly white and Christian organising under the ‘pro-life’ banner. That abortion has now been rendered illegal by this ruling is also the result of the resounding failure of the Democratic Party to advocate for the bodily autonomy of those who wish to give birth and those who do not, and to adopt policies that would ensure that parenting take place in healthy, supportive and ecologically sustainable communities. As the Indigenous women, women of colour and trans people of the SisterSong collective state, a focus on ‘individual choice’ is necessary but not sufficient. It is ‘not just about abortion’, they argue. ‘Women of colour and other marginalised women also often have difficulty accessing contraception, comprehensive sex education, STI prevention and care, alternative birth options, adequate prenatal and pregnancy care, domestic violence assistance, adequate wages to support our families, safe homes and so much more.’
The desire of these Supreme Court (In)Justices to achieve absolute reproductive control through legislation echoes the racialised power exercised by plantation owners over enslaved black women. But control over reproduction is only part of the right-wing agenda. Over the last two weeks the actions of these six (In)Justices have revealed a disdain for life. In the face of rampant gun violence in the US, which in 2018 had 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, a ratio more than double that of any other country in the world, and only weeks after the shooting of nineteen children and two teachers in Robb Elementary School in the Latino community of Uvalde, Texas, this extremist supermajority dramatically expanded gun rights. They rejected New York State’s tight restrictions on carrying a concealed gun in public and ruled that the constitutional ‘right to keep and bear arms’, affirmed for self-defence within the home in 2008, can now be applied outside it. According to research published in Scientific American, ‘guns kill more children than motor vehicle collisions, cancer, infections, or any other disease.’ But, the article goes on, ‘unlike cars and virtually every other product sold in the US … guns are exempt from safety standards set by the federal Consumer Product Safety Act. Between 2015 and 2021, there were 2446 unintentional child shootings, resulting in 923 deaths and 1603 injuries.’
As if this wasn’t enough anti-life legislation from the Supreme Court, on 30 June, in another 6-3 decision, power to limit carbon emissions and consequently pollution was stripped from the Environmental Protection Agency. This can only benefit power plants, the fossil fuel industry and energy executives like Charles Koch, whose net worth of $59 billion has been accrued from refineries, petrochemical plants, and thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines, to the detriment of clean air and water and the ability of the federal government to regulate and limit greenhouse gases. My daughter-in-law, mother of a 16-month-old child, directed my attention to research on the ‘body burden’ by the Environmental Working Group, which shows that the umbilical cord carries ‘not only the building blocks of life, but also a steady stream of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides that cross the placenta as readily as residues from cigarettes and alcohol’. Indigenous, black and other poor communities of colour who because of the environmental racism of extractive industries live closest to coal mines, oil refineries, chemical plants and toxic waste will suffer the most, as will the babies they carry.
These two rulings rapidly following Dobbs reveal the perversity and hypocrisy of anti-abortion rhetoric. These Supreme Court (In)Justices care neither for the health of the unborn nor for the quality of life of those living and yet to live in the precarious future of this planet.
It’s not just about women. Nor is it just about them, their partners and the unborn. Substantially a religious movement rather than an ostensibly political campaign, the anti-abortion movement that has triumphed with the overturning of Roe v. Wade nonetheless shares points in common with the pursuit of Brexit. Both were spearheaded by activist and focused minorities, Bolsheviks of the right, who sometimes glory in being at odds with the mainstream. So, on one side, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who more than anyone has worked to tilt the Supreme Court against abortion, admits that most Americans do in fact support some legal access to the termination of unwanted pregnancies. On the other side, Jacob Rees-Mogg, at time of writing still minister for Brexit opportunities, blithely concedes that these benefits may take fifty years to eventuate. Yet, for all the ideological elitism at the top, both of these movements have also relied on the prejudices and dreams of a mass of the relatively disadvantaged and powerless. Opposition to Roe v. Wade came not just from conservative evangelicals, but also from those hungering for the kind of America evoked in Norman Rockwell’s paintings The Four Freedoms: an America that is godly, that cherishes traditional values, that rests firmly on the family, an America that is safe.
Many who cherish such notions – like many of those who supported Brexit hoping it would enhance prosperity and sovereignty – will be disappointed. Ending Roe v. Wade will not in the main affect the cosy, white nuclear families evoked by Rockwell. It will, however, have a disproportionate impact on American women who are poor and non-white. It may also lead to a further increase in the US’s black and Latino population, which is faintly ironic given that this demographic shift is already a worry for many blue-collar Republican voters.
The parallels between Brexit and the politics of abortion in the US have to do with government systems as well as people and ideas. Both the UK and America suffer from having two overmighty political parties and a distaste for political coalitions and the deal-making they involve. As a result, on both sides of the Atlantic, the structure of politics tends to render partisanship more extreme and a middle ground harder to find. But it is hard to see how stability and a valid level of democracy are to be secured without, on the one side, some measure of compromise over relations between the UK and the EU, and on the other, some negotiated levels of secure access to abortion across the whole United States.
Both of these movements make clear the need for political and constitutional change. In the UK, the poor quality of the organisation and thought involved in the Brexit referendum was in part a result of the lack of a modern codified constitution. The US has a written constitution of course, but it is old and very difficult to amend. Consequently, an encrusted institution like the Supreme Court, which over the centuries has often been partisan, can go rogue and get out of sync with societal change. That a debate over women’s bodies should have highlighted such constitutional issues is not really surprising. Debates affecting women have frequently been in essence to do with the quality and allocation of power.
Among the many messages that arrived in the hours and days after the Supreme Court ruling, one stands out. ‘I’m thinking a lot about a former co-worker who was part of the Jane Collective, which did underground abortions,’ my friend wrote. ‘She talked about marching for abortion rights in Chicago, and cops coming up to their group and saying Jane and tipping their hats cuz their girlfriends sisters wives and daughters had sought their services.’ I’m now thinking a lot about my friend’s former co-worker, too. I’m thinking about those cops, and their wives and sisters and daughters. I’m wondering about protesters and police officers, and the way relations between them might unfold this time. I’m wondering what that co-worker and her movement friends will do – what all of us will do – this time.
I had a conversation with another friend, who phoned me full of fury and panic. I was calm, which surprised us both. Maybe, I told her, it’s because I spend my days writing about climate change and geological time, so I’m in the habit of thinking in spans far greater than an individual human life. The ruling in Roe was mere decades old, a blip in historical time. In colonial America, abortion was common and mostly overseen by midwives. But in the mid-1800s, a small group of doctors led by the conservative zealot Horatio Storer launched a campaign to make abortion illegal in every state. (Storer famously advocated for ovariotomies, arguing that the best treatment for any woman who had ‘become habitually thievish, profane or obscene, despondent or self-indulgent, shrewish or fatuous’ was to remove her reproductive organs.) Before Roe and its reversal there were the Comstock Laws, which made it illegal to use the US Postal Service to send contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys, ‘obscenity’ and any personal letters relating to such matters. But there were also forced sterilisations of indigenous women and black women and Puerto Rican women. International efforts to suppress fertility were not limited to China’s one-child policy. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way, bringing new iterations of the same brutalities. From forced abortions to forced births and, at some point, back again.
The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade signals a shift in US politics that I suspect will last my lifetime. This Supreme Court, composed of nine people I had no say in choosing, will shape the world we live in, and shape us in turn. I think of another friend, whose mother learned to perform abortions in the 1960s, before they were legal under Roe. My friend has always said, half-seriously, that she would do the same if Roe were ever overturned. Who will she – who will we – become now?
One problem, of many, in making laws which govern the bodies of others is that the body is an organic and not a contractual space. Pregnancy does not abide by the legislation, as Ireland discovered, so painfully, in the 35 years between the referendum that voted in the eighth amendment of the constitution and the referendum that repealed it. This amendment acknowledged ‘the right to life of the unborn … with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother’. The language was very much of its time. There was some discussion about the word ‘unborn’ with its gloomy ‘never-born’ ring, but the word ‘mother’ was never questioned, though it describes a formed relationship and not an autonomous person. Despite the fact that the law had difficulty even defining the two lives under consideration, the medical establishment knew what they had to do, or refrain from doing. As in Malta in June when the American tourist Andrea Prudente was denied treatment, so long as there was a foetal heartbeat, doctors could not intervene in a failing pregnancy to afford the mother medical care, and this reluctance led to the death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012. Doctors found euphemisms to describe termination, in case they were speaking on the wrong side of the law. ‘England’ was one word for abortion, ‘London’ was another word for abortion, ‘Liverpool’ was a euphemism for abortions that involved fatal foetal abnormalities discovered in the second trimester. The right to travel and the right to information, established by further referendums, only worked if you had a passport. In March 2014, Ms Y, a refugee, arrived in Ireland and discovered that she was pregnant as the result of multiple rapes in her country of origin. Without papers, she was refused entry into Britain and returned to Ireland, where she became suicidal. She was told she could be detained under mental health legislation and agreed to stay in a maternity hospital, where she went on hunger strike until delivered by caesarean at 26 weeks.
For 35 years, the law in Ireland yielded many horrors, many, many bad stories for women, and for the men who loved them, but it also showed that defining a pregnant person as two people does not work – that it is not just impractical but also unnatural, in the sense that it goes against the ways of nature itself. If the right to women’s bodily autonomy is fought and lost, multiple other legal considerations come into play, many of which can only be resolved by prevailing prejudice. Is a raped drug addict also a murderer if she is made pregnant? Is a man a murderer if he conceives a baby in the wrong kind of woman? With two contradictory rulings in two days, one on the open carry of guns and one on abortion, a rogue Supreme Court in America has ushered in years upon years of legal nonsense, also known as argument, which will distract from the fact that prejudice, not law, now rules.
Many who are rightly dismayed by developments in America are strangely complacent about the situation in the UK. Abortion remains a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under legislation dating from 1861. The 1967 Abortion Act did not alter this, but introduced an exemption from prosecution for abortions carried out before 28 weeks (later amended to 24), conditional on the judgment of two doctors that continuing the pregnancy was a greater threat to the woman’s physical or mental health than abortion. This might seem like a technicality: isn’t it fine in practice? Not entirely. There are issues around access to surgical abortions in the second trimester in Scotland, meaning that a small number of people are forced to travel to England – as many still do from Northern Ireland where, despite the 2019 decriminalisation, provision of services has been repeatedly blocked by the health minister, Robin Swann. As in the US, there are long-standing efforts to erode the legal protections that exist for abortion in Britain. The Tory MPs Nadine Dorries, Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller have all campaigned in the past to reduce the 24-week limit.
UK opponents of abortion now have the wind in their sails. The course ahead is predictable. The Conservative MP Danny Kruger pointed the way when he warned against ‘lecturing’ the United States: ‘I would probably disagree with most Members who’ve spoken so far about this question. They think that women have an absolute right of bodily autonomy in this matter, whereas I think in the case of abortion, that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved.’ Kruger’s cunning is to position himself as the moderate, holding a line against those who want abortion ‘on demand’ under any circumstances, up to the moment of birth. That is not and never has been the status quo in America or the UK; nor does any significant section of opinion call for it. Kruger’s comment obscures the real significance of Roe’s reversal, which is that it will leave millions who need safe abortions unable to access them, with the suffering and death of many the inevitable result. Kruger also ticked off another box on the pro-life bingo card by suggesting that he merely wanted a ‘debate’ on the issue. As so often, the trusty shield of ‘free speech’ is being used to avoid the flak that open identification with bigoted positions might attract.
In reality, only a minuscule fraction of abortions are in the third trimester, but we can expect to hear a lot about these ‘partial birth’ abortions – a term employed to great effect by pro-lifers in the US. We may also hear about vulnerable women and girls being pressured into abortions by ‘feminist’ clinicians – much as we hear from the proponents of the government’s inhuman border policies about the need to protect vulnerable migrants from evil traffickers. And, in a convenient fusion of anti-migrant and anti-feminist sentiment, we may continue to hear about a shortage of British babies.
One group has been conspicuously quiet in the wake of the news from America. ‘Gender critical feminists’ have said very little, or have found a way to blame the overturning of Roe on ‘trans ideology’, as they do with everything up to and including Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. One prominent adherent, while affirming her own position as pro-choice, took this as a moment to praise the ‘fine qualities’ of some pro-lifers. Good people on both sides. Such otherwise baffling reactions make sense given the alliance that has developed between the gender critical camp and the anti-abortion right. This isn’t just strategic co-operation: the legal interventions jointly pursued by these groups, though aimed primarily at trans people, tend to jeopardise the rights of women and girls in general. For example, attacks on the principle of ‘Gillick competence’, which allows some minors to consent to medical interventions – named after a woman who sought to deny this ability to her own daughter – aim to prevent underage people from accessing transition-related treatment such as puberty blockers. Such efforts, if successful, could also prevent underage girls from accessing birth control without parental consent. It’s no coincidence that the lawyer who represented Keira Bell, who was prescribed puberty blockers as a teenager but later detransitioned, has participated in legal challenges to abortion, arguing in a similar vein that women must be protected from ‘regret’.
With the threatened Conservative Bill of Rights unlikely to protect either abortion or the right to maternity pay formerly guaranteed by the EU, and with the attention of many self-identified feminists fixed on an imaginary transgender menace, there is reason to expect things to get dramatically worse for women in Britain, as well as for any group that finds itself in the crosshairs of the currently dominant politics – including trans people, some of whom may also find themselves in need of safe and accessible abortions. The only question is: how much worse, and how quickly?
Lisa Hallgarten and Jayne Kavanagh
According to the secretary of state for justice, Dominic Raab, who was responding to calls to embed the right to choose in the proposed Bill of Rights, abortion is ‘settled in UK law’. Those who campaigned for the 1967 Abortion Act didn’t believe it then, and nobody advocating for abortion rights and access believes it now.
David Steel’s private member’s bill to legalise abortion was bold and progressive, but the Abortion Act that resulted did not repeal the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, which served to criminalise abortion, and which still stands. The 1967 Act was passed in the context of a public health crisis, with hospitals routinely trying to save the lives of women after backstreet or self-induced abortions. It didn’t make abortion a right, or guarantee access. It simply set out exceptions to the 1861 prohibition, putting the power to assess the legality of every single abortion requested into the hands of doctors. As abortion treatments have evolved to become much safer than either pregnancy or childbirth, there are no longer legitimate grounds within the Act to deny someone an abortion within the legal time limit.
The Abortion Act was a compromise, one that has allowed millions of people to access safe abortions and that rapidly ended abortion fatalities; but one that denies abortion as a right, retains it as an offence in criminal law, and leaves providers, those having abortions, and even those experiencing miscarriage and stillbirth, open to prosecution. When the Act was passed, Diane Munday, one of the leading campaigners, only drank half a glass of champagne to celebrate, because the job was only half done. She knew that until all legal sanctions were removed the right to abortion would remain precarious. Her view has been borne out: there have been repeated attempts by MPs over the past fifty years to reduce time limits, and to reduce, or more tightly define, the grounds for abortion. Most recently, the government attempted (but failed) to stop the provision of telemedical abortion, which allows people to take mifepristone and misoprostol at home after a phone consultation. This practice was introduced as a temporary measure during the pandemic, but research has overwhelmingly found it to be safe and effective.
Vocal and well-funded UK anti-abortion groups celebrated the end of Roe v. Wade. Only complete decriminalisation, regulation of abortion in the same way as other forms of healthcare, and the secure funding and commissioning of accessible abortion services across the UK will reassure us that our bodies are truly our own.
The criminalisation of life-in-particular in the name of ‘life itself’ has kicked up a gear. The fact that huge swathes of the US were already living in a de facto post-Roe world – and honing the skills involved in clinic defence, ‘lawyering for reproductive justice’ and pill-smuggling for ‘self-managed’ abortions – is the only available comfort to the rest of us, who are now catching up with what it means to live in a country that has empowered individual states to force us to perform gestational labour against our will or face incarceration. Naturally, better working conditions for unpaid childrearers are urgent: the presence of universal childcare, Medicare for All, and, you know, baby formula on shop shelves might even alter some abortion-getters’ choice. But not all. Pregnancy kills almost a thousand people in the US every year, disproportionately Black women, and permanently injures hundreds of thousands more. The very notion of making a member of our species manufacture a foetus against their will is an atrocity.
People know this. Reproductive freedom is really popular, even within the party theoretically in control of both houses and the presidency. Unhelped by the Democrats, people will continue to care for one another, as we always have. More than half the individuals I know who have thrown themselves into grassroots abortion defence locally are trans women (no surprise there: the state came for their bodily autonomy first). You can’t stop a practice that is as old as humanity. What you can do is increase the female prison population (which more than quintupled between 1980 and 2020). The panicked rush to delete personal data from menstruation-tracking apps, in the fear that prosecutors might subpoena them, is wholly rational. Doctors are already refusing to treat ectopic pregnancies until maternal death is imminent. Helping a child or an adult find the pills necessary to stop gestation is about to become an offence punishable by up to twenty years in prison in Tennessee. In Oklahoma, it’s a felony. The prison-industrial complex is licking its chops at the prospect of all the pregnancy-quitters – and aiders and abetters of pregnancy-quitting – it is about to swallow.
The imperilled cisness and fertility of the American child are at this point a Christofascist obsession, legitimised by centrists who air their ‘concerns’ about demographic decline (birth rates are falling in this settler-colony!). A researcher at Bryn Mawr, Colby Gordon, illuminates this with reference to the logic undergirding the ‘mayhem laws’ used in anti-abortion and anti-trans crackdowns in the 1950s. Sex-reassignment surgery was judged ‘criminal mayhem’ by a California attorney general, Gordon writes. It deprived the state of a potential progenitor, much as abortion supposedly robs the state of soldiers and workers. Both procedures ‘interfere with the reproductive future of the nation’. Ultimately, cops and courts are what gestators and their allies have to fear, not illegal abortions (which are now overwhelmingly safe). The red dye-splattered crotches, coat-hangers and placards predicting untold ‘backstreet’ casualties are unhelpful. We are fighting for decriminalisation, not doctors.
Maureen N. McLane
Abortion was always something to think with if not quite think about or through. It was a way of thinking and not thinking about sex. When I was in middle school, talking about abortion was a way of being taken seriously by adults. It offered a zone of moral reasoning, conversation, a horizon of intellectual engagement fuelled by passion. I was desperate for these. I would spend hours talking with the kindly, militantly pro-life mother of my friend Kathy. I gave Kathy an ABBA record for her birthday; I preferred talking to her mother.
When I was about to go to university in the mid-1980s my father took me to lunch. This was not a common occurrence. At some point my father said something like: ‘Just so you know, if you become pregnant, you could come back home to have the baby.’ I understood that it had taken thought and effort for my father to say this; I was also appalled. The blood rushed to my ears and blanked my mind, so I cannot recall – I may not have heard – whether he went on to imply that my parents would raise any baby or that they’d set up an adoption: most likely the latter. There was no way I was ever going back home. Such a conversation was not part of any broader discussion, then or ever, about birth control, sexual health, pleasure etc.
When I started having sex with men, that is, mainly boys, it was a titanic and distressing thing – so much could go wrong. The ‘right’ to have sex – ardently and bitterly fought for in my psyche and (implicitly but no less exhaustingly) in my family – was bound up, crucially, inseparably, with the right not to bear a child (the anti-abortion right is not always wrong in its analyses). And so in a grim but useful jouissance-killing run-up to what is now more regularly called ‘PIV’ (penis-in-vagina) sex, there were key things I needed to state and have agreed between me and my then boyfriend. Beyond the momentous purchasing of condoms, the seeking of a prescription for birth control pills, the ostentatious and significant and never to be gainsaid hard-won consent of it all: beyond all this, it was crucial to say, before ‘sex’ happened, ‘Just to be clear, if I get pregnant, I would have an abortion.’ The boyfriend was probably taken aback. Because he was serious and thoughtful, he didn’t just ‘yes’ me, though in fact I think he was squeamish about abortion. But he made good faith sounds of support for my body, my choice etc. This was all before I had – to my mind – ‘had sex’.
We might write of reproductive freedom, of justice, what Astra Taylor writes of democracy: it may not exist, but ‘we’ll miss it when it’s gone.’ Well, some will (if the polls are right – but also, fuck polls); some won’t. This will be fractiously, violently contended in coming years, as it has been for decades. As if we needed reminding that freedoms, that horizons of justice, are never settled; as if Roe v. Wade hadn’t been gutted by the Hyde Amendment (which banned federal funds being used for abortions and thus made it harder for poor women to get them); as if, like everything else, horizons of ‘choice’ aren’t differentially distributed. Here, as so often in this moment of political and environmental crisis, I think of Rei Terada’s glossing of impasse as ‘a kind of barricade to create space for a world in which futility can no longer be a reason for not doing something’.
In their dissent to Dobbs, Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan write that ‘the lone rationale for what the majority does today is that the right to elect an abortion is not “deeply rooted in history”.’ Since the US constitution makes no explicit reference to abortion, the majority reasons, the right to secure an abortion would need to be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees rights not mentioned in the constitution if they are ‘deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition’. The past fifty years of Roe are not ‘settled law’, it turns out, but shallow roots, easily pulled up.
The Christian fundamentalists in control of the court have crafted their own deep history of abortion in the United States. In his recitation of the common law origins of early American law on abortion, Justice Alito, writing the majority opinion, begins with the 13th-century legal treatise On the Laws and Customs of England, attributed to Henry de Bracton: ‘If one strikes a pregnant woman or gives her poison in order to procure an abortion, if the foetus is already formed or quickened, especially if it is quickened, he commits homicide.’ Bracton also says if you find a whale washed up on the beach, you should send the head to the king and the tail to the queen.
The court argues that, at the time of its drafting, the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment would not have viewed abortion as a right but as a crime. Their appeal to history is astonishing. Partly because the history is astonishingly bad, as all originalist histories must be, conjuring an unreal past of perfectly transparent texts authored in a social vacuum. But the court’s fundamentalist history of abortion is equally astonishing for the moral authority placed on it. Can any history bear that weight? Could better history overturn Dobbs? No. The American Historical Association prepared an amicus brief based on ‘decades of study and research by professional historians’ which showed that common law did not, in fact, regulate abortion in early pregnancy, and that some states in the mid-19th century – when the Fourteenth Amendment was drafted – allowed abortion in early pregnancy. The majority summarily dismissed that research.
Alito and the rest of the majority do not cite, because they cannot, the plantation medical manuals that reported on enslaved women’s use of cotton root and pennyroyal to induce abortion. They cannot cite the notes made by a Chicago surgeon in 1908 about a woman who died from a self-induced abortion: ‘Woman, two months pregnant, used instruments … Hanging from vagina was a piece of gangrenous gut, about 6 to 8 inches long.’ They cannot cite the 24-year-old woman who induced an abortion in Texas in 2012 after her local clinic closed: ‘I didn’t have any money to go to San Antonio or Corpus. I didn’t even have any money to get across town. Like I was just dirt broke. I was poor.’ These women are not experts, or jurists. They are just women: enslaved, mangled, poor. What could be more deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition than that?
Almost a week after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the Lagos state government released a policy document on abortion. Abortion is illegal in Nigeria except in cases of rape, foetal abnormality or danger to maternal health. The timing of the announcement, which set out guidelines for health workers and was framed as a benevolent act (see, we are not quite as bad as the Americans), felt odd, too much in concert with the reactionary political moment to be a coincidence. It was a rearticulation of state control over the bodies of pregnant people, emboldened by events in the US. But foreign influence on Nigeria’s abortion laws did not begin in 2022: they are a vestige of 19th-century British colonial law that remains remarkably unchanged. We are frozen in time. Never mind that rape laws in Nigeria are wholly inadequate and that, with only 40,000 doctors for an estimated 200 million people, dangers to maternal health are not likely to be quickly identified.
Having an abortion carries a prison sentence of fourteen years, yet abortions in Nigeria are as common as they are taboo. It is estimated that there are between 1.8 and 2.7 million every year, about three times the rate in the UK. Many die as a result of unsafe abortions, conducted by ‘quack’ doctors or unqualified nurses. Nigeria also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, responsible for around 20 per cent of the world’s pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths despite making up 2.6 per cent of the world’s population.
The continued existence of unsafe abortions and archaic restrictions is not entirely a consequence of home-grown ideology, but is maintained by global asymmetries of power. Abortion laws are often thought of in geographic isolation. But as the origins of abortion legislation in Nigeria make plain, laws can be marked by violent histories of expropriation and exploitation, and by the hierarchy of rich and poor countries within global capitalism. The funding for much of the healthcare in developing countries like Nigeria comes from the international development agency USAID. The US gives $9 billion in healthcare funding around the world every year, but like most ‘foreign aid’, the money comes with strings attached. In this case the strings are used to tighten abortion access restrictions. The Helms Amendment, passed in 1973 soon after Roe v. Wade, stipulates that foreign assistance funding can’t be spent on the performance of an abortion. The Siljander amendment of 1981 blocks funding from going to any group which seeks to lobby for or against abortion. What is known as the ‘global gag rule’ instituted by Ronald Reagan bars foreign NGOs that benefit from US assistance from providing abortion services, even if they’re not using US funding.
The US suppression of abortion abroad has resulted in thousands of deaths each year. These regulations establish a relation between the relative freedoms experienced by some through Roe v. Wade and the unfreedom endured by pregnant people in the global south within the grip of US imperialism. The US anti-abortion movement attacks the most marginal in society – the poor, immigrants, people of colour – as well as shoring up an ideal of the white nuclear family that the state endeavours to protect. Such protection is structured in opposition to the non-Western ‘others’ to whom the state’s violence is freely directed – for instance, the immigrant women in America’s detention centres who are forcibly sterilised and denied access to abortion care. There is a link between the ability of the state to deny a person’s autonomy by forcing them to give birth and its power to invade countries and instigate regime change or present itself as a philanthropic benefactor. If this happened in a world with Roe, what will its aftermath look like?
Thomas Sankara said that he who feeds you controls you; it turns out that he who pays your medical bills also controls you. The struggle to decriminalise, expand and destigmatise abortion globally is also a struggle against Uncle Sam’s economic, political and cultural hegemony.
In December 1973, eleven months after the decision in Roe v. Wade, Congress passed the Helms Amendment, named after its advocate, the Republican senator Jesse Helms, who represented North Carolina, and was famous for having whistled ‘Dixie’ while in an elevator with the first Black senator, and for likening abortion to the Holocaust. He saw the Supreme Court’s ruling as an exploitation of judicial power, and immediately dedicated himself to its reversal. In the meanwhile, his amendment imposed on largely poor women across the global south restrictions he had not been able to secure in America itself (Congress refused to ratify the amendments he tabled seeking to annul Roe).
The Helms Amendment banned the use of US foreign aid ‘to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning’. It applies even to countries where abortion is legal, and is a cause of thousands of unsafe abortions and maternal deaths each year. USAID, the foreign development arm of the United States, props up the healthcare systems of almost forty countries. Many have endured decades of warfare, including conflicts where systematic rape has been used as a weapon. The Helms Amendment’s peculiar wording, its reference to ‘abortion as a method of family planning’, left the legality of funding abortions resulting from rape unclear.
Over the years, feminists in the US and activists in countries dependent on USAID have argued for a more liberal interpretation. But the basic spirit of the amendment, that immiserated societies would only receive US cash in exchange for fealty to Christian conservative ideology, was reinforced by further Republican legislation. In the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan instituted the Mexico City policy, sometimes called the ‘global gag rule’, barring organisations that receive US funds from using their own resources to offer women information, counselling or abortion referrals. Democratic administrations suspend Mexico City when they come into power, while Republicans uphold or try to expand it.
Even before the overturning of Roe last month, the Helms Amendment and the gag rule were responsible for the unnecessary suffering and deaths of women around the world, regardless of who occupied the White House. Unable to recalibrate their programmes and budgets around unpredictable US electoral outcomes, countries that can’t afford basic health services for their citizens have tended to avoid abortion related services out of fear of losing their funding. This overcompliance, as it’s called, has been impossible to shift. According to Devex, USAID threatened to cut funding to the Democratic Republic of Congo recently, after its Ministry of Health tried to revise its medical management of rape cases to include abortion guidelines. DRC has good reason to offer women abortion services. Civilians are routinely caught up in fighting between armed groups vying for control of goldmines; in the span of just two weeks last summer, the UN reported 243 incidences of rape in one southeastern province, a fifth of them involving girls under eighteen.
This ‘overcompliance’ will be redoubled in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, which comes at a time of shrinking Western development aid and rising inflation. The effect is similar to that of US economic sanctions, the most devastating effects of which usually result when Western banks refuse to conduct transactions with entities that they fear they may later be penalised for engaging with. A great deal of US policy is now enacted by implicit menace. Since the very threat of financial punishment is enough to induce overcompliance, US officials, whether at the Treasury or USAID, maintain plausible deniability. It is not their regulations that have impoverished populations in sanctioned countries, or denied rape victims access to abortion, it is the overcompliance of governments, banks and other institutions. It is a very neat trick, and for those who fall within its compass, Democratic and Republican administrations blur into sameness.
‘It’s only because abortion is no longer forbidden, that I can now … face, in its reality, this unforgettable event,’ Annie Ernaux writes in L’Événement, her implacable novel-memoir about what it was actually like to get pregnant and have an illegal abortion in France in 1963 (the novel has now been made into an unsparing film by Audrey Diwan). In France at the time, it was illegal to give advice about how to get an abortion, it was illegal to help a woman abort, and it was illegal for a woman herself to induce an abortion. Doctors, nurses, backstreet ‘makers of angels’, the woman herself, even helpful friends: all risked several years in prison. The law did not just ban abortions, it imposed secrecy and silence. Desperate for information, the young Ernaux could find nothing. In the end, only one woman helped, giving her an address and lending her the money.
Silence is both the tool and the effect of repression. Silence ensures that the pregnant woman’s fear and desperation will remain unheard, unheeded, unacknowledged. It ensures that women dying from botched backstreet abortions will be discreetly buried, not publicly mourned as victims of a cruel and inhumane policy. Let’s not be silent this time.
The majority of judges on the US Supreme Court held that outlawing abortion does not discriminate against women. I can’t understand why it does not. All the legalistic arguments in the world only tell me one thing: these judges are callously unwilling to acknowledge the pain of the women who will have their bodies invaded by an unwanted pregnancy, the women who will risk their liberty and life to determine the shape of their own future. Do women have no right to sovereignty over their own bodies?
There will be, inevitably, much hypocrisy. Republicans who enthusiastically back abortion bans will quietly insist that their mistresses get rid of the foetus. They are doing it now. In spite of their principles, some anti-abortion parents will help their daughters. If they do it to save face in their community, they are hypocrites. But if they do it because they can’t bear the misery of their child, it might teach them something about the difference between abstract principles and actual human suffering.
In the 1970s, I marched for abortion rights in Norway. My generation of women, the lucky offspring of the postwar economic boom, were optimists. We thought the world would definitely change, if we worked for it. The Janes, a new documentary about a women’s network that provided illegal abortions in Chicago, brilliantly conveys the breathtaking optimism of the era. Women coming of age now may feel less sanguine about progress. Yet in the age of the internet, repressive silence is hard to achieve. Sex is no longer a taboo subject; unmarried motherhood no longer shameful. The abortion pill makes clandestine abortions far more easily available than in Ernaux’s day. Women will prevail. But how many must die before that happens?
Five years ago I was pig sick of talking about the future of Roe. It seemed bizarre that British people exercised by the havoc Trump might wreak on reproductive rights in the US were indifferent to the fact that abortion was still a criminal offence in part of the UK. But the problem wasn’t really indifference, it was ignorance. When I broached the subject with English friends, many weren’t aware that the 1967 Abortion Act had never been adopted in Northern Ireland, where it was still illegal to terminate a pregnancy unless a woman’s life was at risk. Efforts had been made over the years to change this, but as with most matters pertaining to Northern Ireland, abortion equality wasn’t given much airtime in the mainstream British media. It’s a long way from Westminster to the Shankill Road. In 2015, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in refusing women abortions in cases of foetal abnormality or rape. But the Stormont Assembly voted down the proposed relaxation of the law, and successfully appealed the court’s decision. In February 2018, after the power-sharing arrangement collapsed, the UN issued a report stating that the UK was violating the rights of women by restricting their access to abortion. Four months later, the UK Supreme Court agreed that the law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights legislation, but it couldn’t make a ruling to that effect, since to do so required a case to be brought by an individual who could show that her rights had been violated. Belfast’s Jane Roe, a woman called Sarah Ewart, brought her case before the High Court in January 2019. She had been refused an abortion six years earlier, even though the baby she was carrying had anencephaly and couldn’t survive outside the womb. When the court ruled in her favour, Westminster was forced to act on the UN recommendations. As a spokesperson for Amnesty International put it, ‘devolution … does not relieve the UK government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland.’
Abortion was finally decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019, after an amendment put forward by Labour’s Stella Creasy was passed by 332 votes to 99. The DUP was furious. It argued that abortion was a devolved matter and Parliament had no right to intervene while the Northern Ireland Assembly was in crisis. But by the time power-sharing was restored in early 2020, the new regulations were already being drawn up. On 31 March 2020 a legal framework came into effect permitting abortion under any circumstances in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. It was left to Stormont to commission services, which, two years on, remain more or less non-existent. That’s what happens when you give the job to a rabid anti-abortionist – aka Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland health minister.
Since 2020, four of the five health trusts in Northern Ireland have offered limited abortion provision to women in the first ten weeks of pregnancy, without additional funding or resources from government. Trusts offering the abortion pill have been repeatedly forced to withdraw the service. Access to abortion is a postcode lottery. The Western Health and Social Care Trust, which caters predominantly to women in rural areas, suspended its services more than a year ago due to ‘staff resourcing issues’. Women who can’t obtain terminations locally have no option but to travel to England or to pay for private procedures in the Republic, where abortion was legalised in 2018.
In March 2021, Parliament granted the Northern Ireland secretary, then Brandon Lewis, the power to compel Stormont to put adequate services in place. Two months later, the High Court in Belfast heard a legal challenge against Lewis, the Stormont Executive and Northern Ireland’s Department of Health over the delay. Mr Justice Colton found that Lewis had failed in his duty ‘expeditiously’ to provide women with access to quality abortion and post-abortion care.
A year on, nothing has changed. In May, Lewis told Stormont that if it did not commission abortion services ‘within days to weeks’, Westminster would go over its head. When asked about a timeframe for direct action, he refused to give a ‘specific date’. Lewis resigned as Northern Ireland secretary on 7 July. Will his successor, Shailesh Vara, do any better? To date he has abstained from six votes concerning the extension of abortion services to Northern Ireland. In March 2018, he stated: ‘Abortion law remains a devolved matter and therefore an issue for the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider.’ For the women of Northern Ireland, abortion withheld is little better than criminalisation. It seems unlikely that Vara will be the person to set things right.
Recently, I reached for a book on the shelf, which held an idea I haven’t been able to let go of. Like the Eye of Providence winking on the back of a dollar bill, the ‘noncommittal eye’ in Toni Morrison’s novel Love is associated with an omniscience and ostensible neutrality. In Love, Christine has spent the 1950s and 1960s fighting for revolutionary causes alongside her boyfriend and comrade, Fruit. Along the way, she has had several abortions. In 1970, the spirit of the struggle ends for Christine with ‘a small, quite insignificant toilet flush’.
After a routine abortion, the last of seven, she rose, tapped the lever, and turned to watch the swirl. There, in a blur of congealed red, she thought she saw a profile. For less than a second that completely impossible image surfaced. Christine bathed and went back to bed. She had always been unsentimental about abortions, considering them as one less link in the holding chain, and she did not want to be a mother – ever. Besides, no one stopped her or suggested she do otherwise: Revolutions needed men – not fathers. So this seventh intervention did not trouble her in the least. Although she realised she had conjured up the unborn eye that had disappeared in a cloud of raspberry red, still, on occasion, she wondered who it was who looked up at her with such quiet interest. At the oddest moments – cloistered in a hospital waiting room with a shot boy’s weeping mother, dispensing bottled water and raisins to exhausted students – that noncommittal eye seemed to be there, at home in the chaos of cops and tears.
When I first read this passage, I gasped at the implication that Christine sees an embryo in the flushing water. She is haunted by trauma, including incidents of sexual abuse and neglect, and so the image, which is startling enough, is made horrifying by the sense that she will now also be haunted by a possible being, someone or something who is patiently watching for some unforeseen purpose. The last iteration of the eye, in Christine’s imagination, correlates with a legal decree: at last, in 1973, ‘the disinterested eye, carefully studied by the Supreme Court, had closed.’ It shuts when American women’s reproductive rights open up, when the Supreme Court made the Roe v. Wade decision protecting the right to abortion.
In the years since I first read this novel, I’ve often thought about the watchful profile. Is it related to Beloved, the angry baby that haunts its mother, who finally realises she was wrong to decide the infant’s fate? No, that baby was a baby, born and murdered; this one is unborn, not anyone yet. I’ve searched for the eye in the media, and in familiar idioms (‘every shut eye ain’t sleep’). Sometimes I’ve found myself staring at the anti-abortion signs held by protesters in public parks, on which foetuses curl like shrimps. I’ve occasionally seen the eye in images of embryos whose eyes were maroon circles; meridians of blood, peepers the colour and shape of felt poker tables. At other times, I’ve seen it in the promise of a first look, all wonderment, like the cover of Lennart Nilsson’s A Child Is Born. But this was to take the meaning a bit literally; Morrison’s eye is coolly abstract, a fact undergirded by the descriptors she uses for it: ‘disinterested’, ‘noncommittal’, ‘nonjudgmental’.
Is the eye something more unsettling? Is it redolent of Christine’s lover, squinching his eyes during orgasm, not quite invested in the outcome of his efforts? Or the glazed-over impatience of a self-righteous medical professional, intended to make her feel bad for electing to do what they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do? Is it suggestive of men in general? No, Morrison is not a polemical writer on the subject of gender. Maybe the eye represents the collective opinions of all the people Christine has ever loved, judging her latest choice. Morrison’s eye is not the eye of Ursa, say, in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, a novel written in the early 1970s, and one Morrison edited. Jones’s heroine, like her foremothers before her, is burdened with childbearing as an act of ‘leaving evidence’ against a sadistic slavemaster and patriarch. Although the eye shuts after Christine sees the Supreme Court judgment, it is not depicted as being concerned with a moral reckoning that takes sides or weighs evidence. It is, as she writes, ‘disinterested’.
Something motivated Christine to turn around and look in the first place. I’m the kind of person who would look, too – I’m inclined to stare off into the distance, wrestling with hypothetical decisions. I’m an overthinker, though unlike Christine I’m sentimental; that mix makes for someone who looks too long at everything. In my mind, the eye is to be found in a similar spot to the Eye of Providence at the apex of the pyramid on American currency, symbolising a divine, all-knowing, all-seeing consciousness. I’ve never been pregnant, though I’ve worried I might be a couple of times. In those moments, the ogling eye seemed to exist only under my eyelids; perhaps that’s where it’s always lived, a product of hope, or fear. For me, that’s what the eye represents, more or less: my own consciousness, a place of redress and of progress – a place to dream. Dreams, before they are realised, are omnidirectional.
I’ve wondered if I had to make the seven choices Christine had, what I would do. I’m incredibly grateful I’ve always been able to make my own decisions concerning my reproductive health. It occurs to me that Morrison’s eye is neutral because the procreative decisions of scores of women and other people who can become pregnant are morally neutral – as the state should be in these matters. Perhaps that’s why the eye closed in 1973: the guilt and shame associated with forced maternal labour seemed to be over. A period of abstinence meant the eye in my mind was half-closed like a dozing person. But it has reopened, after the Supreme Court studied it and tried to force it shut. Now the Eye of Providence is synonymous with the state-sanctioned surveillance of the bodies of women, girls, non-binary people and genderqueer folks who can become pregnant. The state I live in has not outlawed abortion – yet – but in other states there are laws encouraging people, including doctors and pharmacists, to snitch on their neighbours and patients. In those places the Eye is multiplied, always watching, recording and readying itself to report.
The following is what I wish I’d written earlier, not that it would have mattered. The differences of opinion that those who support abortion rights have been chastised into respecting on behalf of ‘coalition building’ are wide and ludicrous, and I regret ever pretending to accept them. Is it because we’re mostly women? That one can’t rule it out is one of many paternalistic insults we’ve been subjected to by the Democratic Party and the mainstream liberal media. For my entire adult life, every public utterance by pro-abortion public figures, commentators, writers and average people has been expected to accommodate all possible ‘pro-choice’ perspectives, to coddle the wrongheaded and the ill-informed, to sound as if we were preparing to announce our own campaigns any day; we were not voters or citizens or individuals capable of complex thought but representatives of the movement, which has long been fragile, on the brink of collapse.
It is not surprising that this happened; it has been clear for many years that even the people who support abortion rights do not necessarily support abortion. If a person calls themselves ‘pro-life’ it means one thing: they believe life starts at conception, and that therefore any abortion is murder. If a person calls themselves ‘pro-choice’ it means very little: it might be that they believe a foetus is a cluster of cells, and abortion a simple medical procedure that safely removes them from the body; that they believe a foetus is a cluster of cells until a pregnancy has lasted a certain number of weeks, at which point the procedure should be more stringently regulated; that they are ‘uncomfortable’ with abortion but otherwise liberal and so don’t want to think about it; that they believe in abortion, ‘but wouldn’t get one’; that they think a life starts at conception but it’s the right of the person in whom it is developing to decide to end it. For years an insipid Christianity has trickled into contemporary fiction, while sudden pregnancies in film and television produce in young, well-off protagonists a totally anachronistic anguish. Almost always, they have the baby. In New York City, the much discussed ‘downtown scene’ of podcasters, artists and hangers-on has only partially ironised a turn towards, I swear to God, Catholicism. A valiantly feminist but ultimately sentimental emphasis on representing mothers and motherhood in culture has reinforced the sense that one ought to be one, that despite the pain and political obstacles it is worth it, spiritually, morally, not just a choice but the right one.
Clutching bouquets of wilted rhetoric, left-liberal politicians, commentators and activists turned to situations that were easy to justify. What about women who want their babies but due to some devastating complication cannot or should not carry them to term? What about pregnant cancer patients who won’t be able to access treatments because they risk or require terminating a pregnancy? What about miscarriages, which are treated using the same procedures as abortion and which, if not appropriately managed, can result in suffering, infertility and death? These are true, affecting arguments, but they are also desperate, losing ones. They draw an implicit distinction between justifiable and unjustifiable abortions, and in doing so follow the religious, punitive logic of their opponents’ rhetoric: If we have good intentions when we get pregnant, abortion is acceptable; if we were simply lazy, or irresponsible, or slutty, we might deserve the consequences.
We should have said: the clump of cells on which you’ve pinned your hopes and fears is not a baby; the experience of difficulty and loss does not require a literal death to make sense. We should have said that life without choice is no life at all; a society in which consequences are not liveable, in which abortion is not free, legal and available on demand, is not one that is capable of appreciating, nurturing or protecting the thing you think you are fighting for.
What is life? One can arbitrarily designate its scientific limits until the planet can no longer support it; a literary definition is more accurate. To go on requires a certain amount of hope for the future. But life is also overflowing with something less hopeful: reality – lapsed judgments and drunkenness, desire and disgust, forgetfulness and freak accidents, sudden changes in mood and inclination, indecision, fear, pressure, stupidity, regret, the shocking malice and utter indifference of others, pain. It involves finding oneself in situations one did not intend or imagine, starting with being born. It is not a gift, but it need not be a curse.
A couple of years ago, after I read Carol Sanger’s great book About Abortion, I called up my daughter to tell her that I had had an abortion. Sanger’s book is a study of all those in-your-face laws – parental consent, waiting periods, mandatory counselling, required viewing of foetal ultrasounds – that eroded reproductive rights across two decades, created a culture of harassment, and made possible where we are now. To counter that hateful wave, Sanger argued, we needed to mobilise not just legally but culturally, in part by speaking more openly about a procedure that one in four American women (including me) have had. My daughter, who is accustomed to periodic outbursts of feminist mothering, laughed and said: ‘Well, Mama, if you feel I needed to know that, I’m glad you told me.’ But neither of us were terribly interested in an abortion that happened fifteen years before she was born, and soon we were talking of other things.
My daughter and her friends (like my son and his friends) are feminists; they were out in the streets as soon as the decision overturning Roe was announced. But as Blue State college graduates with IUDs and Plan B, their relation to abortion is more distant than mine was – although if Clarence Thomas has his way, they may find themselves in the firing line. In the early 1980s the abortion rate was double what it is now: girls in my Minnesota public high school had abortions, undergraduate women at Harvard had abortions, and graduate students (like me) did too. Those abortions weren’t done lightly exactly, but they weren’t hugely fraught: no one, for example, offered me counselling, which was good, as I wouldn’t have taken kindly to it. I had this unwanted clump of cells removed in much the same spirit I had an ovarian cyst removed around the same time, and never regretted it.
I am not saying there are no ethical issues around abortion. That clump could, over time, and with my consent (a caveat of no concern to Justice Alito) have become a baby. But anyone capable of complex thought should be able to distinguish between the clump and the baby, and if they have trouble on this score, I recommend the thought experiment known as the ‘embryo rescue’. You are in a burning hospital, and you have a chance to rescue five fertilised eggs or one screaming baby. What do you do? If the fertilised egg is a ‘person’, you are clearly required to save the embryos – more life, and more ‘potential life’ too! But no one, faced with this choice, won’t grab the baby. Why? Because, as we recognise in that split second, that time in the womb matters to ‘personhood’. And if that time matters, the consent of the person supplying the womb matters too.
There are shades and gradations here, of course, but women have been dealing with those pretty capably for a long time. I don’t research abortion, but in the course of historical study I’ve often come across women, usually with too many kids and not enough money, trying to bring on a ‘late’ period by hot baths, gin, falling down stairs, and other desperate measures. But if those don’t succeed, at ‘quickening’ they usually give up, and decide, whatever the burden, to let the baby-to-be live. (And if they don’t, it’s for reasons I wouldn’t question.) Those women are displaying a fine-grained moral sensibility, a capacity to balance burdens and rights that is strikingly absent from the self-righteous verbosity of this court. We should trust those women’s capacity to judge for themselves.
The anti-abortion movement, by contrast, turns women into moral minors. Its new rhetoric justifies coercion as care; we ‘love them both’, their signs proclaim. But there is a name for a person who foists love on someone without consent, and that word is ‘stalker’. This word captures pretty well what anti-abortion activists are doing to women and girls today. But their ambition doesn’t stop there, nor does it stop at forcible childbearing. The goal – as Leah Libresco Sargeant explained it in the New York Times – is to make abortion ‘unthinkable’. That’s right: not just unobtainable and illegal, but ‘unthinkable’.
This is a totalitarian ambition. My daughter and her friends think they have the right to control their own bodies, including by abortion: what would it take to force that thought out of their heads? This movement can, and will, do everything in its power to force bodies to breed, but how is it planning to erase thought from minds? It is this demand, not just that women survive bodily coercion but that they lose even the capacity to imagine freedom, that forebodes dystopia. My head knows that this is the time when we need to build and fund the underground railways, support the self-help networks, and – if we can – preserve the Union, but my heart speaks differently. It says that the United States now is the hospital on fire, and it’s time to grab the baby and run.
There is surely a connection between forcing women to have babies and sexual violence. If the case of the ten-year-old rape victim denied an abortion in Ohio seems exceptional – the extreme example of the inhumanity resulting from the Supreme Court ruling – it might be best to think again. For the anti-abortion movement, overturning Roe v. Wade is only the first stage. If the justices have their way, as more than one has been happy to state, the criminalisation of contraception and of same-sex marriage and same-sex sexual encounters (two things not to be conflated) will be next. The sexual act is to be only reproductive. Women, including young girls, will have babies, again and again. The ruling can be placed on a continuum with rape, as a way of punishing the female of the species and bringing her into line. At a time when debates about what constitutes a woman have never been louder, more eloquent or vociferous, this is a way of telling women exactly who they are.
It is also a means of crushing any hint of unrestrained eros. Freud thought that one of the hardest tasks as a human was to subordinate the polymorphous and bisexual sensuous life of the infant to a single, heterosexual, reproductive aim. His consulting room was peopled by subjects rendered wretched and ineffectual by the injustice of this ‘civilising’ demand. Forcing sexuality into the straitjacket of reproduction smothers the soul. It is a form of killing. Not to speak of the number of women, mostly black and poor, who, with no alternative to illegal, backstreet abortions, will now die (if the aim is to secure the supply of white babies, then, since access to abortion will be so much harder for black women, it will surely go down as one of the most self-defeating legal decisions on record).
It is neither an irony nor a coincidence that two of the Supreme Court justices have faced serious allegations of sexual abuse and harm. We make a fatal error if we assume – after the searing testimonies of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas in 1991 and of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 – that these men were confirmed in office despite the charges against them or because these charges were not believed, just as we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Trump was elected in 2016, and continues to command fervent support, despite his boasts of sexual harassment, rather than because of the excitement they provoke. There is always a risk that the veneer society places over human vagaries will crack, revealing the miasma of psychic and sexual lives beneath, which is the reason a lawbreaker in the White House is so enticing. The court’s decision has provoked an outpouring of public grief – women collapsing on the street or weeping to the skies – as well as defiance and rage as they gather and marshal the counter-offensive to come. This, I believe, is in part because the ruling brings the unmanageable domain of human sexuality trailing it its wake. Overturning Roe v. Wade is itself a sexual act, in the guts, under the skin, capable of worming its way into every living pore.
I cannot remember a moment when I have felt so viscerally that the knives were out, that the longest revolution (the fight for women’s equality) had been dealt such a body-blow. One thing is clear. This decision is not only an assault on the right of women to control their own bodies. It is also aimed at dispatching once and for all the idea of a body that is unruly and alive to the possibilities of the world, one that allows women to follow their own path wherever it may take them, to discard the oppressions of the norm and to celebrate the freedom to roam.
Samuel Alito uses the word ‘controversy’ or ‘controversial’ thirteen times in his opinion on Dobbs. Abortion, he argues, is an inherently divisive topic. ‘Far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue,’ he writes, ‘Roe and Casey have inflamed debate and deepened division.’
This is not the only distortion in Dobbs, but it is a revealing one. In fact, most Americans agree that abortion should be legal. And this was also the case in the early 1970s, when Roe was decided. As Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel show in their 2010 book, Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling,Roe did not ‘inflame’ divisions about abortion: it was decided during a moment of widespread support for the practice. This support was shared across political and religious lines. In 1972, a Gallup poll found that more Republicans than Democrats backed it. Gallup also found that a majority of Catholics agreed with the statement: ‘The decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.’
Far from being an organic reaction to judicial over-reach, the abortion ‘controversy’ emerged from political campaigning. Abortion did not become the subject of political debate until about a decade after Roe, after Republican strategists decided to enlarge their base. ‘Favouritism towards things Catholic is good politics; there is a trade-off, but it leaves us with the larger share of the pie,’ one of them wrote. During the 1970s, this targeting expanded to encompass the evangelical vote, which had been open to the legalisation of abortion at the time of Roe. ‘The New Right is looking for issues that people care about, and social issues, at least for the present, fit the bill,’ Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, said. ‘Yes, [social issues] are emotional issues, but that’s better than talking about capital formation.’
Anti-abortion positions were imposed from the top down in response to the demands of angry voters. Republican lawmakers started voting against abortion ten years before their base had a strong opinion on the subject, Greenhouse and Siegel note. Support for Roe evolved as well. In the 1960s, doctors, not the women’s movement, were among the first to voice concern about illegal abortions. As attacks on abortion continued, support for it became more narrowly defined, as the province of feminism rather than public health.
In the face of this, the Democratic Party has done relatively little to uphold the right to a health service used by nearly a million people a year. It has not countered the idea that Roe sowed divisions among the American public. There are many other issues in which the concerns of a small minority now trump the will of most Americans: guns, climate, the separation of church and state. Under this Supreme Court, all rights are treated like abortion rights: political expediency takes precedence over human lives.
A migrant domestic worker in Lebanon once told me that the family she worked for trusted her to care for their young children and prepare their meals, but not to keep hold of her own passport. I could poison them all, she joked. We are inconsistent about who we trust and the domains in which we trust them. Abortion is similarly incoherent. The same people who cannot be trusted regarding the uses of their bodies are trusted to raise a child.
The overturning of the constitutional protection for abortion in the United States is a reminder that anti-abortion conservatives are chillingly astute tacticians who have shifted the ground beneath them, and now have other targets in sight. The immediate response should be to make sure people can access safe, timely, affordable abortions. But we must also ask why we are still losing a fight that threatens the freedom and safety of so many of us.
One answer is that we start on the back foot. Discussions about abortion are mired in sludgy, finicky dialogues on the moral status of the foetus. It’s a dubious angle, given that moral status has so little traction elsewhere, and is tied to ideas about ‘innocence’ that all but vaporise at birth. Where was the lifeline of moral status when thirty migrants (including a pregnant woman) drowned following a shipwreck in the Mediterranean last month? Yet the strategic move of shaking off the moral baggage in favour of the mantra that abortion is essential medical care – which of course it is – falls short. Unwanted pregnancy is forced labour. Abortion is killing. These facts coexist within an irreducible margin of error that we must live with.
The problem is that pregnant women have always been shut out of the moral deliberations and cast as wicked, inept or irrelevant. In a debate the year before the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act, one Labour MP, Kevin McNamara, put the dismissal plainly: ‘Who is the mother to make the judgment?’ ‘People must be helped to be responsible, not encouraged to be irresponsible,’ the Conservative MP Jill Knight (who would later co-author the homophobic Section 28 legislation) said later in the same session.
Roe v. Wade required that the pregnant person consult with a ‘responsible doctor’. In Britain, abortion remains unlawful unless two physicians agree that the pregnant person is too ill – mentally or physically – to assume her responsibility to gestate. Doctors have ten minutes to judge their patients’ situations against this troubling metric. Those who can become pregnant have years of the fine-grained moral experience that comes with living in and worrying over a body which might house new life or become a site of killing. That wisdom is rehearsed in anxieties around contraception, in dreams thick with yearning, horror or ambivalence, and in the relief or sorrow of a wad of blood-splotched tissue.
Like so much that is women’s work, we did not ask for this. We did not choose to embody a scene of such contention, but doing so is its own preparation. Catharine Mackinnon posed the question in 1983: ‘Why should women not make life or death decisions?’ In the Nation, Sophie Lewis defended abortion as killing: ‘When we withdraw from gestating, we stop the life of the product of our gestational labour. And it’s a good thing we do, too, for otherwise the world would sag under the weight of forced life.’
Objectors argue that pregnant people are apt to favour their own interests, so others must step in to advocate for the voiceless party. But if partiality rules out the pregnant person, it rules out others, too. Supreme Court justices look after their careers and legacies. Anti-choice activists attend to their own religious or political hopes. Morality is not a game of neat axioms and clean conflict: if we are not listening to those who are deep in the weeds, we are not being serious. As Margaret Mayman wrote in the Guardian in 2019, ‘While the language of rights is pivotal in the legal debate, the language of care and responsibility, towards other people and themselves, features prominently in women’s moral discernment.’
Trust is uneven because it’s an instrument of hierarchy. Exploitation requires trust; subjugation puts limits on that trust. At least two Supreme Court justices owe their careers to the belief that women are not credible when it comes to sexual assault. That we are not morally trustworthy, even (or especially) on matters relating to our own bodies, is core to the disciplining of those bodies and the lives they circumscribe. The stability of the status quo depends on the denial of the credibility of oppressed peoples. Ask asylum seekers. Ask trans people. Giving due weight to women’s determinations of right and wrong would make for a very different kind of world.
When Triple Jeopardy, the magazine of the Third World Women’s Alliance, covered the passing of Roe in 1973, it pointed out that while wealthy women had ‘managed for some time now to obtain these operations with little or no difficulty’ it was ‘the poor woman, especially third world women from low-income strata who have been at the mercy of back-alley abortionists’. In 1969, the year before abortion became legal in New York, the women of TWWA reported that ‘nearly half the childbearing deaths’ in NYC were attributed to abortion. Out of these, ‘79 per cent were among non-white and Puerto Rican women.’
Today, thanks to medical abortion – induced by a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol pills – and improved surgical techniques, the botched procedure in a makeshift clinic is no longer the gravest threat to those seeking out illegal abortions. These will continue to happen, not least because of a lack of knowledge of safe abortion methods – one study in Ghana, where abortion is legal, showed that many women still choose risky procedures over proven alternatives. And just as poor communities of colour have been the primary targets of fake Covid ‘cures’, so we will no doubt see opportunistic medics peddling at best ineffectual, at worst dangerous, drugs to those seeking discreet terminations. But many harms will lie elsewhere and, again, they will be unevenly distributed. Women of colour, who are already the primary victims of maternal death in the US – and among those most likely to have abortions – will increasingly die giving birth to children they are being forced to bear. The male authority figures marginalised women already have reason to fear – cops, parole officers, judges, abusive partners – will, thanks to the many state abortion bans triggered by the fall of Roe, be further empowered. The position in the UK is less secure than we might like to think. Recently, a woman from Norfolk was reported to the police for taking abortion pills without the authorisation of two doctors – a legal requirement. The call was made by her social worker. (We should not forget that in 2019 99 MPs, mainly Tories, voted to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland.)
For the Third World Women’s Alliance and other Black feminist groups, the politics of abortion was inseparable from a broader politics of race and class. The battle for abortion, the TWWA said, was part of a larger campaign for ‘free, safe (non-genocidal) healthcare’, ‘non-exploitative employment, controlled collectively by workers’, ‘an end to the racism and sexism which forces third world women into the lowest paid service jobs’, and ‘healthcare, housing, food, clothing, transportation and education … free and controlled and administered by the people who use them’.
It would be a mistake to respond to the overturning of Roe by fighting simply to get it, or something like it, back on the legislative books. Local abortion networks exist because the world before Roe was overturned was not one where abortion was everywhere safe, affordable and on demand. Legal change – while not without powerful effects – has never been sufficient for real social change. This works in both directions. Republicans think they can legislate abortion out of existence, but they will only drive it underground, devastating lives in the process. Democrats who think that securing abortion under the law is the same as securing access to abortion have not been paying attention.
Or maybe they have. The striking down of Roe is a gift to anyone who wants to perform their ‘woke’ credentials while doing as little as possible to alter the conditions that make a progressive politics necessary. In a recent run-off, Nancy Pelosi supported Texas congressman Henry Cuellar, despite his anti-abortion stance. His challenger, Jessica Cisneros, a pro-abortion working-class woman of colour, was backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On the day Roe fell, Pelosi sent out an email asking for donations to help her fight the court’s ruling.
There is a coalition of actors – centrist Democrats, Republicans, corporate CEOs – who would not be unhappy if liberals and leftists spent the next decades campaigning for the reinstatement of what was there before. A flimsy protection, based on the right to privacy (the feminist irony!), eroded at state level, and with inadequate provision for the worst-off. Meanwhile, Republican legislators will step up their assaults against trans and queer people, environmental protection, and whatever simulacrum of democracy the US can still be said to have.
The only response is to meet their radicalism with our own. It is not enough to demand a woman’s right to choose. We must insist, with the women of the TWWA, on full reproductive freedom, and on the conditions that make a flourishing human life possible for all.
It is worth noting that neither of today’s most prominent mass feminist movements for reproductive justice – in Poland and Argentina – are trans-exclusionary. The activists in these movements know that the forces which would prohibit the right to abort a foetus are the same ones that want to pathologise trans and gay people. Trans-exclusionary feminists have a choice to make: whether to continue providing sustenance to highly organised and murderous right-wing forces, or come into coalition, however uncomfortable, with those of us looking to stop them.
Writing in Women: A Journal of Liberation in 1972, the year before Roe passed, Claudia Leight, an abortion counsellor in Baltimore, discussed her ‘fears about choosing any one demand and concentrating on it exclusively’. ‘I’m afraid’ she predicted,
that legal abortion could become to the current feminist movement what suffrage was to our sisters over fifty years ago. That is, that this demand could be singled out and won, nominally, with so much energy directed towards its achievement that more general issues of women’s liberation may be forgotten. A similar consequence would be for our demands to be met in a minimal way so as to silence us. It is a real possibility that abortion will be legalised nationally, but will still be expensive and therefore available only to privileged women … If we are to work for reforms which are necessary now, we must keep in mind where we hope to be heading: that our major goal is to change the basic relationships of power in our society.
To say that the evidence that Republicans care about foetuses, babies and children is mixed is to take seriously their rhetoric about the unborn and weigh it against all the evidence of indifference and malice, the decades of Republican opposition to ensuring basic well-being for expectant parents and their offspring, including access to food, shelter and medical care. The evidence that they want women to suffer, live in risk, fear, powerlessness and occasionally to die as a consequence of the new legislation, is considerable.
One argument is that we know women will continue to get abortions, but they will be less safe; another is that abortion poses far less risk than pregnancy does, and the US has high maternal death rates, particularly among Black women. Another piece in the misogynist checklist is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s ominous words about Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court decision recognising married couples’ right to birth control. You would think people who are against abortion would be for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, but the opposite has long been the case. The argument is that women should not get pregnant unless they intend to have the child and therefore should be forced to have it. In this argument, children are punishment, but only for one parent. The other person involved in unwanted pregnancy disappears, and virtually nothing mentions the existence, let alone any possible consequences, for the impregnator.
The recurrent Republican aspiration to deny women abortions in the case of ectopic pregnancies is also chilling. With an ectopic pregnancy, a fertilised egg is implanted outside the uterus. It cannot become a viable embryo that will grow into a living human being. On the other hand, without medical treatment, it is usually fatal, and is the leading cause in the US of maternal death in the first trimester.
In 2019, Ohio Bill House Bill 413 included language demanding that ectopic pregnancies be reimplanted into the uterus; that same year the ultra-right-wing Federalist published an article entitled ‘Is Abortion Really Necessary for Treating Ectopic Pregnancies?’ Short answer: yes, and the author later apologised, but the campaign continues (and the piece is still on their website). In 2022, the Missouri Republican Brian Seitz introduced a state bill making abortion a felony, including in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
The new abortion bans also pose risks to women having miscarriages, since a dilation and curettage (or, if the pregnancy is further advanced, a dilation and evacuation) can be regarded as an abortion. Lack of such care can result in sepsis and death. Women have also been told they will be denied access to medicines used to manage other health conditions on the grounds that they could cause or be used for miscarriages or abortions. The surveillance state created by tech’s tracking of all our daily activities (travel, online searches, expenditure, as well as digital period-trackers) has created new ways to invade the privacy of anyone suspected of pursuing an abortion, notably women who may have either induced an abortion with pills or travelled out of state in pursuit of one. To be a person in her reproductive phase is to be a potential criminal under the new laws.
Medical caregivers are also under new scrutiny. Early reports in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade suggest that in some states with abortion bans doctors are so afraid of being criminalised even for treating an ectopic pregnancy that they’re waiting for the rupture that makes it a medical emergency rather than treating it on detection. Exceptions to abortion bans for rape and incest have been withdrawn, and the Speaker of Missouri’s House of Representatives says that, yes, a twelve-year-old victim of incest should be forced to carry the pregnancy to term. A twelve-year-old is a child; the argument that all this is being done because they care about children is undermined by such positions.
Two arguments make better sense in light of the forty years of Republican attacks on reproductive rights. One is that many or most of the politicians pursuing this agenda are cynical salesmen using a volatile issue to recruit voters so they can pass legislation they really care about, making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and corporations more powerful. The other is that they are angry Puritans intent on punishing women for the sin of wanting the freedom to have sex without motherhood and recognise that denying reproductive rights returns women to their earlier status of separate and unequal. The sheer vengefulness of the recent measures adds weight to that argument, but doesn’t detract from the other. Both can be true.
Sometimes, usually late at night, I check the Worldometer population clock. The website that hosts it (Worldometers.info) uses data from the UN and the US census bureau to estimate the number of births and deaths around the world in real time. I checked in shortly after midnight this morning (8 July). The numbers were small: only 987 births so far today. 988. 989. Deaths are at 436, then 437. Total population growth for the year is approaching 42 million. It’s tempting just to sit and watch the world population ticking up. The rate of increase is greater than one per second, though it jumps suddenly backwards and forwards every so often, like a clock with a dodgy mechanism, or a heart skipping a beat. This morning we – all of us – climbed past 7,959,065,000. Eight billion is within skipping sight. I tried to work out the maths: 2500 births in the first ten minutes of the day and 1000 deaths. Ten minutes means 1500 additional lives and there are 144 lots of ten minutes in a day. If the global population increases by 216,000 a day, it will take 189 days for us to reach eight billion. Sometime in January 2023 we will see the arrival of baby eight-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero.
Abortions don’t come into these figures because no data scientist records foetuses as lives, or their expirations as deaths. But if abortion were free, legal and accessible around the world, daily death rates would be lower, because fewer women would die during pregnancy or labour, or following botched abortions. The provision of safe abortion is one of the single greatest means of improving women’s health and wellbeing. But very few countries act in pursuit of women’s health and wellbeing. The global picture is one of sliding scales of coercion, varying according to political expediency, religious doctrine and demographic anxieties. Women’s choices are limited by law but also by location, custom, circumstances, income and class.
From this point of view, it makes little sense to see pregnancy-to-term as the opposite of abortion. They are simply different best-case scenarios, arrived at through the same reasoning. Being free to choose abortion means being free from stigma and shame, from social and familial pressures. But am I free to choose pregnancy if my society doesn’t provide childcare? Healthcare? If I can’t afford to feed another mouth, or can’t escape my violent partner? Am I free to choose pregnancy if I am gay? If I am single? More or Less, the Radio 4 statistics show, recently looked into the Department of Education’s 2019 parental survey, which reported that three-quarters of parents found it ‘easy’ to meet the cost of childcare for their under-fives. This made little sense given that in Britain, full-time childcare is more expensive than the average mortgage. But it turned out they had been asking the wrong question. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, more than half of all families with young children pay nothing towards childcare. Of the remainder, most pay very little. This bonfire of the nurseries is not a rejection of childcare provision but a reflection of its unaffordability. Someone, usually the mother, is giving something up to make it possible. Someone is doing it for free. Even economists will tell you that just because something isn’t paid for doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost. Just because there’s a choice doesn’t mean you’re free to choose.
In Latin America, where a ‘green wave’ of abortion legalisation is underway, it has taken decades of community and activist work to build the momentum for legislative change; more important, that work has created the infrastructure needed for education and access (the stark exception here is Nicaragua). In the UK, as in much of Europe, abortion is technically illegal except in certain circumstances. The caveats – usually around mental health – require the woman to perform her distress or probable future distress. Can’t I just change my mind? If it’s a right, then why does it feel like a crime, one that the state agrees to commit on my behalf if the circumstances are sufficiently extenuating, if I can prove my good character? Only three countries in Africa (Benin, South Africa and Mozambique) offer broad entitlement to abortion in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and this is near meaningless without local health centres, transportation and the money to pay for it. Turkey allows abortion up to ten weeks after conception (is the date of conception any more reliable than the Worldometer?), but married women need spousal consent. In Spain and Italy, women seeking abortion are deterred by harassment and by social censure. Provision is hampered by a lack of doctors. More than four-fifths of abortions in those countries take place in the private sector, because public sector doctors who refuse to perform the procedure are protected as ‘conscientious objectors’. Abortion is legal on demand, up to a certain point, in Russia, India, Mongolia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but one need only consider the social and geographical range of that list to imagine how wildly different it must be in practice. Emmanuel Macron spoke out recently against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but only a few months ago he argued against extending the upper limit for abortion in France from twelve to fourteen weeks. He campaigned to maintain the two-day ‘reflection period’ and tried to prevent the publication of a list of official abortion providers. So you may have your liberté, but we will make you wait for it. You may have your liberté, but we won’t tell you where you can exercise it. You may have your liberté, but only up to a certain point. After that you become a criminal. In this way of thinking, legal abortion is a crime abetted by a grudging state, and pregnancy a debt owed by women to society. One way or another, they make you pay.
The most famous philosophical treatment of abortion is an essay by Judith Jarvis Thomson published in 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade was decided, in the inaugural issue of the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. ‘A Defence of Abortion’ opens by dispensing with the standard pro-choice premise that the foetus is not a person. A ‘newly implanted clump of cells’, Thomson writes, is ‘no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree’, but ‘we shall probably have to agree that the foetus has already become a human person well before birth.’ But is that what matters? Imagine, Thomson says, that you wake up to find that the Society of Music Lovers has hooked your circulatory system up to a famous violinist with a life-threatening kidney ailment. Unless you stay in bed, attached to him for nine months (you are the only one with the right blood type), he will die. Are you morally permitted to unplug the violinist? The hospital director explains why not:
Tough luck, I agree, but you’ve now got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you … Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body.
Thomson suggests that most readers will find the doctor’s logic ‘outrageous’. Yes, the violinist is a person; but no, obviously, his right to life does not trump your right to bodily autonomy. Similarly with the foetus: it might be a person, but even so don’t you have the right to abort it?
The intuitive power of Thomson’s thought experiment is undeniable. But its intuitiveness rests on a liberal individualism that feminists, including those who were fighting for access to abortion at the time Thomson was writing, have long wanted to resist. For social conservatives, the foetus – better yet, ‘the unborn baby’ – is an object of hysterical devotion (giving rise to what Lee Edelman has called ‘the fascism of the baby’s face’), just as a famous violinist might be to his fans. But foetuses – not the idea, but the creatures themselves – exist at the borders of life, on the margins of humanity. And it is at the borders and margins of ‘the human’, ‘personhood’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘life’ that feminists have identified those most in need of protection and liberation: women, disabled people, queer people, people of colour, immigrants, children, non-human animals, nature. To assimilate a foetus not only to an adult, but to a famous, high-status adult (an adult with a fan club!) is to distract from the vulnerability of certain forms and stages of human life. This vulnerability, the fact that none of us is a perfectly independent and autonomous self, means that, like it or not, we need each other. We are all the violinist; and we are all his host. This is, yes, an outrage: but it is the outrage of human existence. To elevate that outrage to an ethical principle, as Thomson encourages us to do, is to indulge the destructive fantasy that we can simply unplug and be free.
What would it be to have a pro-abortion politics that did not flee from vulnerability and dependency – that did not take as its implicit starting point the perspective of the sovereign, perfectly autonomous individual? It would be an abortion politics that, as feminists of colour have long been urging, shifted its focus from ‘choice’ to ‘justice’, drawing a connection, for example, between anti-abortion politics, campaigns of forced sterilisation of Black and poor women, and the demonisation of ‘welfare mothers’, ‘benefits scroungers’ and the ‘hyper-fecund’ women of the global south. It would be a politics that made safe and free abortion part of a much broader package of social provision that recognised human need as a public rather than a private concern: universal healthcare, childcare, housing, basic income and so on. It would be an abortion politics, not unironically, that would advance the aim conservatives claim they care so much about: the reduction of foetal killing.
But there’s the rub of anti-abortion politics: it does not, on the whole, meaningfully reduce the rate of abortion. What anti-abortion laws do guarantee is an increase in the suffering of those with unwanted pregnancies, and in the state’s ability to punish those people – especially poor women – who seek or facilitate abortion. This is a feature, not a bug, of anti-abortion politics. Anti-abortion laws are designed not to reduce foetal deaths, but to punish those who resist the prevailing reproductive order. They are a reminder that it is the function of women to devote themselves, psychically and bodily, to the maintenance of social and economic life, and the prerogative of the state to ensure that they do so.
The word ‘sex’ is not used in ‘A Defence of Abortion’; the word ‘intercourse’ appears just once. For Thomson, the fact that human foetuses are produced by sexual activity was ethically irrelevant to the question at hand. But for most ‘pro-lifers’, sex – in both its senses – is the fundamental issue: playing non-voluntary host to a parasitical violinist may be an outrage against individual liberty, but playing host to a foetus is, for a woman who chooses to have sex, the appropriate outcome. What’s more, for the woman who chooses to have sex for reasons other than reproduction – for pleasure, for money, for the hell of it – carrying a foetus to term is her just desert. This is why Thomson’s thought experiment, for all its power, exercises little grip on the patriarchal worldview. At the slightest incursion on men’s liberty, patriarchy bridles wildly. But the unspoken condition of men’s freedom is women’s unfreedom. Every abortion wanted, sought and completed is an offence against the social order. In this, at least, the anti-abortionists are right.
Given current political tensions between China and the US, and rising nationalism in China, one might not have expected Chinese netizens to be especially interested in the Supreme Court ruling of 24 June. But the overturning of Roe v. Wade aroused genuine curiosity. Well-informed articles were widely shared, podcast episodes enthusiastically followed. This is due in part to the large numbers of Western-educated millennials who have resettled in China. They might make up only a small proportion of the population, but they are among the most energetic commentators on many aspects of socio-cultural life. In general they are liberal-leaning, but they vary in their attitudes towards ‘Western’ feminism, with some insisting on talking of the ‘rights of the individual’ rather than ‘women’s rights’, so as not to appear to subscribe to a foreign ideology.
‘Feminism’ is characterised by the state as a Western invention deployed to undermine China’s cultural stability. Activists have been under police surveillance for at least a decade – that is, when they aren’t in custody for causing ‘social disturbance’. Government media manipulation and the pandemic helped to quieten China’s #MeToo waves. But while some users took to Weibo after the ruling to deride the US – ‘Where are your American-style human rights? Where’s your freedom?’ – there was a strong element of solidarity. Within 24 hours, the Weibo hashtag #USSupremeCourtCancelsConstitutionalRighttoAbortion had 640 million views.
Abortion is widely available in China, but the government has no credible policy programme on women’s issues or gender equality, let alone LGBTQ rights, while discrimination is increasing in many places. This year alone, several cases concerning the mistreatment of women have caused national outrage. In January, video clips circulated of a shabbily dressed woman chained by the neck to a doorless shed. The woman’s ‘husband’ proudly presented himself as the father of eight children. It transpired that the village is in an area notorious for human trafficking, and particularly for selling women as wives to local peasants, a practice that emerged during the economic reforms of the 1980s, when marketisation left farmers desperately poor and fiancées were in short supply thanks to the uneven effects of the one-child policy.
By that time, the gender equality initiatives of the Mao era had long been neglected, if not entirely dismantled. They had never in any case applied to China’s tens of millions of migrant workers. But the one-child policy remained. A week after the Supreme Court ruling, public attention was caught by a story from Guangxi. In 1990, a one-year-old boy was taken from his mother’s arms by five officials and given to another family as part of the ‘social readjustment’ programme. Now that the law has changed, and Xi is encouraging families to have more children, the boy’s parents want to find him. The local authorities claim the records are lost.
Anxiety about China’s ageing population has changed government policy dramatically. Officials recently announced that they would seek to reduce the number of abortions performed for ‘non-medical’ reasons. Party members and local officials are under pressure to make this happen. They have a long way to go: there are ten million abortions in China every year, only slightly less than the number of births. But in a society where clan-based networks have been destroyed, where social services are largely delegated to the market and gender equality stubbornly excluded from policy considerations, it remains to be seen how successful younger generations will be in bringing about progressive social change.
‘Is it not better to abort than be barren,’ a line that Samuel Beckett writes in an early poem, ‘Cascando’, has stuck in my mind over the years, for its harsh intransitive use of the verb ‘abort’. The line had a terrible ring, yet it also interested me that the sentence – almost a motto – is assuming the subject position of a woman, even while confining her to her reproductiveness. Placing her in the foreground at all was unusual in the 1960s, when so much of the discussion of abortion was shaped by opponents who focused on the foetus, the human being in potentia. Beckett intends his thought figuratively, in relation to love and loving, meaning that it is better to have desired and suffered, loved and lost, than not to have had those experiences at all. His use of the word ‘abort’ itself, with its deathly finality, helped me later to recognise the strength of Susan Griffin’s argument in Woman and Nature (1978) that the opponents of the woman’s right to choose had managed to take over for themselves the language of life. Women needed to take it back, to prevent the ‘pro-lifers’ manoeuvring their targets (like me) into speaking the language of death. The word ‘abortion’ itself is part of that language. I am not asking for euphemisms (‘termination’ may be less direct but stays within that realm of death-dealing), nor does medical terminology solve the problem (the illegal procedure in those years was covered up as ‘scraping the uterus’, a supposed remedy for menstrual dysfunction). But we should try to tilt the emphasis from the ending of the foetus’ viability to the wellbeing of the woman, now and in the future.
My bookshelf of works on this and related issues of civil liberties dates back fifty years, and many of those studies, some of them celebrated, blazing manifestos, seemed to have become venerable, their timeliness fading as rights were achieved, laws established. Not so any longer. The pioneering campaigners of those days pointed out that it was not only a question of what language to use to express the arguments for women’s authority over their own bodies, but of visual representations too. The antagonists used images quite unscrupulously to spread their arguments about the foetus being a human person, with a soul, images which erased the personhood of the women themselves. Paula Rego’s Untitled: The Abortion Pastels (1998-99) are generally believed to have aided the positive outcome of the second referendum in Portugal on the issue (she did them after the failure of the first one). In the last month, these images have gone viral. They are born of Rego’s unflinching eye on the hidden corners of women’s lives. They picture women, almost all of them on their own, contorted and anguished, with basins and towels around them. It is characteristic of Rego that she offers no moralising, only fierce identification. She is bearing witness primarily to the pain, squalor and danger of the backstreet abortion, but her images also convey the ambiguities that haunt the experience for so many; they don’t forget that women have often been forced to undergo the procedure against their will, for reasons of social propriety or state control. One of Rego’s favourite books was The Crime of Father Amaro, by Eça de Queiros, in which a young girl is debauched by a priest. He wants her to have an abortion; when she refuses, he has the baby taken from her, and given to the local ‘weaver of angels’, in whose ‘care’ the child dies.
I have never had an abortion, but around fifteen years ago, in my early thirties, I had something called a ‘missed miscarriage’ where the foetus dies in the womb. I already had two children and when I became pregnant this time, the routine twelve-week ultrasound really did feel routine. I cycled blithely to the hospital on my own, thinking I knew what to expect. My husband was busy at work, so there was no one to hold my hand when the sonographer told me that, actually, she couldn’t find a heartbeat. I was taken away to cry in another room, where someone gave me a glass of water and started to talk about ‘tissue’ and ‘remains’.
When you have a missed miscarriage, the NHS gives you options. You can simply wait for the foetus to pass naturally – this is called ‘expectant management’. The second option is to take drugs that will hasten the passing of the foetus. Or you can have surgery, as a day patient, which is what I chose. The procedure is the same as an abortion: dilation and evacuation, in which the foetus is removed in a quick operation under general anaesthetic. When I arrived at the day surgery unit first thing in the morning, the other people waiting were all teenage (or near teenage) girls, accompanied by their mothers. The girls looked frightened. One of them was wailing uncontrollably. When the surgeon was ready, she was called first. While I filled in my paperwork with a doctor, I was asked if I would consent to a student doctor observing my procedure and I said, yes, of course.
An hour or so after the surgery, I was resting in bed, bleeding but fine, when the student doctor came to see me. She had a few questions, she said. Could I tell her why I had decided to have an abortion? For a moment I was tongue-tied with shock but somehow managed to explain that no, this baby was very much wanted. For weeks afterwards, empty and flat from the miscarriage, I would look back at this moment with self-righteous horror. Why had no one in the room made it clear to the student that she was observing the removal of a dead foetus? And why did the surgeon make no distinction between operating on a woman who desperately wanted a child and one who had decided to end her pregnancy, for whatever reason?
But now I look back and think it was a wonderful mistake. In the early 19th century, the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier argued that social progress across the world operates according to the progressive liberation of women, by which he meant freedom to live fully according to their passions, whether in the sphere of work or leisure or sex. Fourier observed that in any society where women’s behaviour and bodies were policed, there would always be secret rebellion, deep unhappiness and hypocrisy, but also that society as a whole would be unfree.
A decade or so earlier, I could easily have been one of the pale, scared girls in that clinic, though I would have been far too secretive and ashamed to bring my mother along. The student doctor’s mistake was a symptom of the fact that everyone in that clinic was living, broadly speaking, in a state of social freedom. To cling to my sense of hurt at her words would be to wish for a society where the moral consequences of sex are different for married women and unmarried girls (as well as, needless to say, for men and women). Such societies are not in short supply, despite Fourier’s dreams. You can’t liberate women without setting in motion a cascade of other freedoms; and this is a huge part of the reason women’s liberation is still so feared.
Talk to anyone who works in abortion and the question of time keeps coming up. The six-week bans; the fifteen-week bans; the date of your last period; the gestational limit of the clinic; the length of a state-mandated waiting period; the number of hours it takes to drive to Illinois from Mississippi; the four-week wait to get an appointment there; the trigger laws that go into effect immediately, or in five days, or in thirty days.
A couple of weeks ago I was on the phone with an abortion advocate in northwest Arkansas, who was explaining the geography of the thing. It used to be that a person in Fayetteville, Arkansas, could drive to Tulsa, Oklahoma, two hours away, to get an abortion, where the mandatory 72-hour waiting period did not require two in-person visits. But then, in May, Oklahoma all but banned abortion in advance of the Supreme Court decision, so to terminate a pregnancy that person would have to drive three hours down to Little Rock, which had a 72-hour waiting period bookended by two in-person appointments, or there was Memphis, Tennessee, a five-hour drive but only a 48-hour waiting period. Then the Supreme Court judgment activated trigger laws in some states. Abortion was immediately banned in Arkansas, and in Tennessee it became illegal after six weeks, so today that person from northwest Arkansas would have to travel to Granite City, Illinois, a six-hour drive, or Denver, Colorado, a twelve-hour drive. Arkansas’s own ban on abortion is total, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Everything that is happening was already happening, and has been happening for years, it’s just a lot worse now. Medical abortions have been restricted in Arkansas since 2018. There are ways to get mifepristone and misoprostol to someone in a state where it is banned. The person trying to terminate a pregnancy can cross the border to a state where it is legal, have a telemedicine call with a doctor and get the pills sent to a UPS drop-off box, or a friend’s address, or a P.O. Box. If they are in Texas near the border and have a passport they can go to Mexico and buy the pills over the counter from a pharmacy. There is an organisation based in Austria called AidAccess that will mail the pills to states with abortion bans, for those willing to take the legal risk. Presumably pills will also be available from drug dealers if they weren’t already.
June was a waiting game for abortion providers. Nobody knew exactly when the opinion would be published. The Supreme Court calendar had little yellow boxes on the days it intended to release opinions: 24 June was a yellow box day. An abortion advocate I spoke to in Colorado was certain that the court would wait until 27 June. ‘We got Whole Women’s Health on 27 June in 2016,’ she said to me, referring to another challenge to abortion that went before the Supreme Court. ‘In 2016, it was 27 June so I’m expecting it’ll be 27 June.’ She was wrong. I wanted it to be 27 June too. One last weekend.
The day the opinion was released, 24 June, was a Friday. Coincidentally, or not, it was the Friday before Pride is celebrated in New York. In the context of Dobbs, feminism and LGBTQ rights have become the same battle: the right to your sexuality and to bodily autonomy, the right to be considered an equal citizen under the law, the right to use medical technology and hormones to arrive at a sense of well-being, the right to define your own idea of family. Not to be dramatic, but a whole life flashed before my eyes, the mythology of liberal feminism: modern marriage as an equal partnership, the articles about ‘balancing work and family’, the articles about ‘the decision to have children’, the hyphenated last names, the shoulder pads. What was it all for, exactly, if six people, five of them male, five of them Catholics, two of them sexual predators, can reduce women to the legal status of broodmare by fiat, and the country bows its head and complies? I thought of the Women’s March in 2017, when I carried a sign that read ‘Uterus v. Them’ and walked around Washington. The pussy hats and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Halloween costumes and corporate rainbow flag floats look like flotsam now. The pathos of a neighbour’s ‘We Won’t Go Back’ Planned Parenthood bumper sticker on a trash bin, probably dating from the 2016 election. We let kitsch distract us from power, for how long – decades? The clock was now ticking on the idea of moving to the big city and pursuing your secular little life. As someone said to me at a Pride party that weekend, ‘It turns out we are all living in dad’s house.’
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