‘It’s a hell of a scary time’: leading US feminists on the threat to Roe v Wade | Roe v Wade
The US was shaken earlier this week by the news that Roe v Wade – the ruling that gives American women the constitutionally protected right to safe and legal abortion – could be overturned.
If the leaked ruling by the supreme court does come into effect abortion would be a matter for individual state legislatures and Congress to rule upon. The change would mean women and girls no longer having the same rights their mothers and grandmothers fought for if Republican-controlled states move quickly to end abortion access and Republicans in Congress attempt to enact a nationwide abortion ban.
Leading US women’s rights activists and scholars tell us how they feel about the news.
Bonnie Greer, playwright and novelist
As someone who had an illegal abortion – in my home town of Chicago in 1969, four years before Roe v Wade – I was very angry when I heard the news. I am very angry. For women, our destiny has always been our biology, and we’ve fought for ever to change that, to ensure that we’re respected and protected as whole human beings, equal to men under the law.
I had an abortion because I got pregnant accidentally. I was just about to go to university – I couldn’t become a mother. There was this doctor who performed abortions after-hours. I paid him and he made sexist jokes the entire time he was performing the procedure. He even told me what gender the foetus was. I got no aftercare, no counselling – and I needed it. I still need it, after all those decades. I was in the wind, because I was breaking the law. Know this: women will always get abortions, and the overturning of Roe v Wade would mean we will once again be at risk.
It means that men and women are not equal under the law, based on our biology. It’s the same thing as saying that a human being is not equal under the law based on the colour of their skin. Both are things that cannot be altered. I hope that the US people will vote out of office the Republicans who have pushed for this to happen.
British people should care that abortion access could be being repealed in the US, because what the US does, Britain always imitates. We must all keep fighting. We won’t be defeated.
Judy Chicago, feminist artist
It’s amazing and incomprehensible that a draft of a supreme court decision was leaked. That talks to the unusual times we’re living in. The potential overturning of Roe v Wade is symbolic of a larger worldwide push against progress that manifested as much in the Taliban restricting women’s rights to education again. It’s the story of pushing forward and pushing backwards. We’re in a period of pushing back.
The fight for women’s rights is a long historic struggle against a set of values that restricts the rights of, not only women, but LGBTQ people, trans people and people of colour. When I was young, I had the money to pay for an abortion. There’s a quote that I encountered when we were working on the Holocaust Project, that those who have the least to say about human events suffer the gravest of consequences. So it’s going to gravely affect women who do not have the resources to access abortion. It’s going to affect them horribly.
You know, we have been living through the #MeToo movement. Well, there’s another kind of #MeToo movement, particularly in the US. It has to do with me too and what I ate. Me too and what I want. Too many young people get wrapped up in that kind of me too. So I guess for them, this is going to be a rude awakening.
Are young people willing to stand up for their rights? Without that, we’re lost.
V (formerly Eve Ensler), playwright and activist
When I heard the news that the supreme court was poised to overturn Roe V Wade I thought: no, fucking no. The supreme court does not represent the majority of Americans – who support abortion – and it has no moral authority to control women’s bodies.
I have been getting emails all day and night from women around the world who are panicked, raging, saying this cannot happen in the US, for if it does, it will catalyse and amplify the rightwing misogynist project that is taking away the rights of women everywhere, having a devastating impact on their lives and now escalated during the pandemic. If we allow the erasure of this central right for women, it will escalate the erasure of them all.
It is absurd for this country – with one of the highest maternal mortality rates and no paid maternity leave – to be forcing childbirth on women. And there is also no accountability for the people impregnating women – which is because this is not about babies, it is about destroying women’s agency and autonomy. And we know that this will most harshly affect the lives of Black and Brown women and marginalised people.
That this ruling appears engineered by three Trump appointees to the court – Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas, two accused predators (both denied the allegations), together with avowed anti-abortionist Amy Coney Barrett, is no surprise.
We are seeing the greatest pushback of rights I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Those of us who have fought to live in a world where women have choices and bodily independence know that the patriarchy is endlessly aggressive and brutal. If we are not radical, bold and vigilant, rights are destroyed.
Young and old people – those who have never lived without Roe v Wade and those who have – need to join together now and rise up – this is our future. Forcing women to have a baby is a form of control and violence. This MUST be a wakeup call, the alarm where we take to the streets and stay in the streets until this patriarchal madness ends.
V is the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against all women, girls and the planet
Mona Eltahawy, author
A part of me is like, this is a fucking disaster. But the other part of me knew this was going to happen. Ever since Trump was elected, we knew this was coming. The white supremacist Christian right has been working on this for nearly 50 years, and they’ve won.
I had an illegal abortion in 1996 in Egypt and a legal abortion in the US in 2000. I can’t believe that my past is becoming the present in the United States. This is the most powerful country in the world, and this fundamental right for pregnant people is being stripped away.
Those who can afford to get a safe abortion will continue to do so, and mostly Black, Indigenous and Brown people, and working-class people, will not. But that’s been the reality for many years now. Texas had already shrivelled the number of abortion clinics it had.
Ever since I moved to the US from Egypt, I’d been saying that the United States is a theocracy, but no one is paying attention. The Christian right is more powerful in the US than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt ever dreamed of being. But because they’re predominantly white and Christian, they’re considered to be less dangerous. As an Egyptian feminist, I have to call out the role of women in creating this theocracy. Look at supreme court associate justice Amy Coney Barrett. It is not just men taking away our abortion rights.
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is out now, published by Penguin Random House
Robin Morgan, author and activist
It’s a terrible blow. It was not unexpected, but there’s an element of sheer disbelief at the audacity of this move by the ultra right. Eighty per cent of the American public believes a woman has the right to do with her own body as she chooses, but it is still not respected. It affects everybody because it’s coming in under the privacy aspect of the constitution. This means that they are now going to be moving [in] on medical abortions, same-sex marriage, gay rights in general. I mean, it just takes your breath away.
There’s an old phrase about Americans always doing the right thing, but at the very last moment. We do adapt but, God, we could die waiting. The hope is that this will galvanise us at the polls, not just in 2024, but this coming fall. The 80% of the country that thought rather sensibly that this was a done deal, that this was a woman’s right under the constitution, will be galvanised and we will have a very different outcome at the election. But it’s a hell of a scary time.
There’s no time to despair. You do everything you can think of to change the situation. New legislation is already being introduced by Democrats in the house because the Republican party has totally gone down the tube. It’s Trump’s party now.
There will be marching, demonstrations, sit-ins, petitions. Women will go ahead and disobey the law. What are they going to do when half the population is in revolt? Not 20%, not the ultra right wing, not the evangelicals. Women are going to control what happens to our own bodies. No matter how many thousands of us have to go to jail. We are not turning back the clock. No way.
Robin Morgan is the editor of Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement
Katha Pollitt, poet and essayist
Roe v Wade was a life-changing ruling, probably one of the most important – from the ground level – supreme court rulings there has ever been. It meant that women could stay in school. It meant women could work in a consistent way. It meant women could leave abusive partners. It meant that women didn’t have to marry the man who got them pregnant.
I felt horrified when I found out it could be overturned. This really allows states to do whatever they want with abortion, and 26 states is a lot of people. This is going to affect women whether or not they have an abortion, because it says, basically, you’re here to procreate, and we don’t care if there are health concerns, or rape or incest.
If a man can get you pregnant, you have to have that child. I think that’s a tremendous statement that women do not have that human right any more.
One thing that is in our control is how much work, time and money we’re willing to spend on re-enshrining abortion rights and abortion access. I think there’s going to be a tremendous need for money to help women in places where abortion will now be unavailable – we have to work on getting abortion pills to those women.
There is a very active network of abortion funds, which raise money for low-income women to pay for their abortion care. People don’t realise it’s not just the cost of the abortion. It’s also travel, childcare, lodging, food, being able to take time off work. It would be really great if people started giving significantly to abortion funds.
Katha Pollitt is the author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights
Mara Clarke, activist
I started my abortion activism in the US in 2002. In 2010, 87% of US counties did not have an abortion provider. By 2017, it was closer to 90%. Most people in the US think Roe v Wade has protected abortion access, but it’s mostly protected abortion access for wealthy people, and women with the ability to travel large distances. So this news for those of us who’ve been in this work for years is horrifying and sickening and rage-inducing, but it is not surprising.
It’s easy for people in the UK and Europe to think this is an American problem. But it’s not. Northern Ireland still does not have commissioned abortion services. In Europe last year, Poland enforced a near-total ban on abortion. Women there die of preventable causes because doctors won’t give them abortions. There’s no abortion in Malta and Andorra, and it’s highly restricted in Liechtenstein. And that’s not even considering the global south.
It’s disheartening. But after the initial punch to the gut I will do my best to feel hopeful because maybe it will motivate people to make systemic change. That systemic change may be abortions being self-managed with pills, and grassroots networks of activists helping women and pregnant people exercise their right to obtain safe abortions.
Mara Clarke is the founder of the Abortion Support Network
Jill Filipovic, author and lawyer
Underpinning this judgment is, very clearly, not a fealty to the law. It’s not even a fealty to the idea that foetal life is particularly valuable. Instead, what underpins it is a deeply misogynistic worldview that seeks to restore traditional gender roles, male dominance over public, economic and political life, and female subservience and dependence. If women can’t control their own bodies, they can’t control their own futures. The justices are not stupid people. They know that.
The judgment is going to open a huge can of worms. It will throw the entire country into chaos. It’s going to be a legislative circus. Abortion rights activists will frankly make sure that women have access to safe abortion, whether legal or not. In an already deeply polarised country that’s already experienced serious challenges to democratic norms and systems, this is another kick towards greater division, and a greater fraying of US democracy.
All of the women I know are sad, and absolutely livid. One in four American women will have an abortion in her life. The women in my life have been talking about how different so many of our lives would have been if we didn’t have access to safe abortion. About all the career opportunities that would never have happened. The men we would never have married. All the novels that weren’t written, and the inventions never dreamed up. The wanted children that never come into the world. The big loves that women never find, and the abusive relationships they never leave. The stability that low-income women are never able to claw their way to. There is a tremendous amount that is foreclosed upon, when women can’t make these fundamental choices about their bodies.
Sydney Calkin, academic
I was horrified when I heard the news, but not surprised; it was clear that a lot of the justices wanted to overturn Roe v Wade entirely. It’s worth pointing out that, for a lot of people, Roe hasn’t meant much in practice, because states that are hostile to abortion have already made it all but impossible to access abortion. Plenty of states already have burdensome laws that make abortion logistically or procedurally impossible, or really expensive.
We’re not going to go back to the dark days of the coathanger abortion. What we’ll see is an acceleration in self-managed abortion using medication. Thankfully, self-managed abortion is much safer now with pills, not that that’s a replacement for safe and legal abortion. But it’s still a horrible decision that will endanger people.
The supreme court likes to say it’s not political, which I find funny. This decision has been the result of the conservative legal movement packing the court with extreme anti-abortion conservatives for decades. It’s been their long-term strategic goal. There’s also talk of overturning same-sex marriage, and some rightwing politicians even want to look at the right to contraception. They will be coming for other laws. I don’t think this stops at abortion. It’s horrifying.
Dr Sydney Calkin is a senior lecturer in human geography at Queen Mary University of London
Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist
We have been expecting this for some time: despite what he said, it was clear that Brett Kavanaugh and the others were going to try to overturn Roe v Wade if they could. I was shocked, but not surprised. The American right wing is patient and methodical – it has been building power from the ground up and spreading its propaganda for a long time.
We have already seen access to abortion in some states be so radically curtailed it is effectively nonexistent. If Roe v Wade is overturned, it will create a patchwork United States where rights in some states are very different to those in others.
I do not have to worry about pregnancy at this point in my life, but I do see this as an attack on every person who is capable of becoming pregnant – an attempt to make women unequal, unfree and second-class citizens.
Anti-abortion laws are based on lies and the pretence that those getting abortions are all reckless, hypersexual, irresponsible hussies – whereas the majority are, in fact, women who are already mothers. We must draw attention to the realities of abortion. The argument that it is easy to carry a child to term and then give it up for adoption is another anti-abortion lie – pregnancy itself is life-altering and it can be life-threatening. It can injure and incapacitate bodies, and it has an enormous emotional impact.
There’s already a huge amount of fury among those who support access to abortion, and my great hope is that people can hang on to that fury long enough to produce the kind of blue wave that took back the house in 2018. We often talk about right-wing “backlashes”, but there are progressive backlashes, too.
Rebecca Solnit is the author of numerous books, including The Mother of All Questions