Last April, I wrote a story for Rolling Stone about the slow state-by-state erosion of women’s reproductive rights. I also wrote about the life-threatening miscarriage I had while I was reporting that story. It was by far the most personal piece of journalism I’ve ever published, but the subject was personal to me in a way that most aren’t, so form fit function. In a journalism career that has now spanned more than a decade, “The War on Planned Parenthood” is the one story that makes me most proud. Hillary Clinton tweeted it. Supreme Court clerks read it. Anti-choicers denounced it, telling me that “selling [my] soul should pay real good money.” I still haven’t brought myself to look at the comments.
The story was personal for me not just because it dealt with what was happening in my body, but also because it helped me work through what was happening in my mind. I’m pro-choice because I think women should have autonomy over their bodies, that we should not be legislated in a way that men aren’t; but I was also raised in a conservative, church-going Southern family, so perhaps more than most adamant pro-choicers, I understood where the other side was coming from. And truth be told, it was hard for me to think of my lost pregnancy as a cluster of thoughtless, sensationless cells, rather than as the “baby” I hoped it would one day become. In my grief, I struggled with feeling like a traitor to a cause I believed in. Writing that piece helped me come to terms with it all.
Then Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt was decided, and Clinton surged ahead in the polls – I figured, happily, that the article would soon become obsolete, that I would look back on it one day as a relic of a different time. Election night proved me wrong.
Women of my generation have never known a time before Roe v. Wade. We’ve assumed that our constitutional right to abortion is indelible, so we haven’t thought of, or planned for, a time when that right might be taken away. Now, it seems, we must. Since 2011, states have been stealthily but steadily chipping away at women’s access to safe, affordable abortion services under the dubitable auspices of “protecting women’s health.” In some states, and despite protests from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, they’ve regulated abortion providers almost out of existence, mandating everything from the width of hallways to the size of janitors’ closets. Some states require doctors to tell patients about bogus links between abortion and infertility, PTSD, and breast cancer. Some have stripped funding from any organization that performs abortions or even contracts with an entity that does, a provision that could put a state’s own health department at risk. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress have gone so far as to threaten to shut down the government rather than spend any money that could end up going to Planned Parenthood, even though the 1976 Hyde Amendment already prevents all federal funds from being used for abortion except in instances of incest, rape or danger to the life of the mother. (This means that the money they’re withholding would actually go to pay for such things as Pap smears, STI screenings and contraception; it also means that if you’re on Medicaid, you pay for abortion out-of-pocket.) As these attacks have mounted, however, there have been certain stopgaps: the Supreme Court holding states accountable to both the Constitution and reason, with President Obama’s veto power at the ready.
Those stopgaps are about to become far less reliable. The day Trump takes office, he’ll have an open Supreme Court seat to fill and the knowledge that three pro-choice justices are at least 78 years old. Lose any one of them, and there’s a chance Roe will be overturned. But it doesn’t even need to be overturned for anti-choicers to (mostly) have their way. Without a sufficient judicial barrier, the Republican House and Senate could simply take a page from the states and turn their draconian abortion provider regulations into national law, pull Title X funding meant to give low-income Americans access to family planning services, and enact an abortion ban at 20 weeks (which just so happens to be the timeframe when many fetal abnormalities become apparent on anatomy scans).
And don’t take heart from the fact that Trump has donated to Planned Parenthood in the past. As recently as September, the candidate who suggested that women be punished for having an abortion – before getting the memo that the more PR-friendly tactic is actually to go after the doctors – wrote a letter to anti-choice supporters promising to deliver on a wish list of their dreams: making the Hyde Amendment permanent, doing away with Planned Parenthood, outlawing abortion after 20 weeks in all states, and stacking the Supreme Court with justices who will let all this slide. As the president-elect, he’s been as good as his word (for once), surrounding himself with cabinet members and staff that oppose not just abortion, but also contraception. Tom Price, who’s expected to soon to head up the Department of Health and Human Services, has opposed the Affordable Care Act mandate that contraception be covered and co-sponsored an act that would have prohibited family planning funding from going to abortion providers. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, has been endorsed by anti-choice organization Operation Rescue and has voted against a bill to provide teens with sex ed and access to contraception. As a congressman, Mike Pence wrote the very first bill to defund Planned Parenthood and co-sponsored “personhood” legislation that would have made the morning-after pill illegal, while as governor of Indiana, he signed a law to keep private insurance companies from covering abortion as well as one requiring that all fetal remains be buried or cremated – including fetal remains from miscarriages. And Katy Talento, who Trump has chosen as a health care policy adviser, has written, preposterously, that use of the pill might lead to miscarriages and infertility, asking, “What about breaking your uterus for good?” All of which implies that this is not just about the fate of embryos, but rather about controlling women’s reproduction full stop, keeping us from having the medical advances that allow us to decide for ourselves under what circumstances we bear children.
To date, those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose have been fighting with knowledge, which is a tactic that theoretically makes sense. We have science on our side. We know that a fetus does not have the neural connections in place to have consciousness or feel pain until the third trimester, months and months after the rudimentary heart begins beating. We know that legal abortions are safe and routine; a woman is 14 times more likely to die from childbirth than she is from legal abortion, a procedure that is safe and routine and that 30 percent of women will have during their reproductive years. We know what a woman can lose when she’s forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy, the education she’s likely to forgo, the income she’ll never earn, the quality of life she’ll be denied. We have those studies. We likewise know that the women most impacted by all this are the ones with the fewest resources — those who depend on government programs like Medicaid and live in medically underserved areas where Planned Parenthood may be the only health care provider of any kind — and that a lot of these women are the disenfranchised, working-class whites whose ignored plight supposedly propelled Trump to the highest office in the land. (Fact check #1: More white women have abortions than any other racial group. Fact check #2: The median income of people who voted for Trump was actually higher than the national average.) But we haven’t been quite prepared to fight a fight unmoored from science or logic. We haven’t been ready to fight the visceral notion that “in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother, just prior to the birth of the baby,” as Trump put it in the final presidential debate. In an age of misinformation and disinformation, when something becomes “true” because it’s posted online or tweeted – or said out loud at a podium – we haven’t been ready to compete with that.
The thing is: we shouldn’t have to. The majority of Americans believe in abortion rights. According to a Pew study that was published this January, 57 percent of us believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (versus 34 percent who think it should be illegal in all or most cases), and 69 percent oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, this past summer, a poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found Planned Parenthood to have a more favorable rating that either Trump or the Republican Party (by 19 and 20 points, respectively). These numbers, however, don’t seem to matter to a GOP juggernaut that’s busied itself with obsessing over defunding one of the country’s largest health care providers rather than saving its failing middle class. After all, “choice” is about more than the right to an abortion. It’s also about things like equal pay, fair housing, affordable health care (with contraception coverage), paid family leave and subsidized childcare – things that would truly give women a choice in whether and when they bring another child into this world.
So we, the majority, are losing. We have kept our gloves on, demurred to our stats and our decorum, and now may be on the brink of watching 44 years of progress disappear in 48 months. Which means it’s time to play by their rules. It’s time to fight dirty, to pass around pictures of Geraldine Santoro, to wear coat hanger pins, to talk to our great-aunts who we’ve always just assumed were born infertile, and to dredge back up a painful history that our mothers and grandmothers thought they had spared us. It’s time to never let anyone forget that outlawing abortion won’t make it go away, and that even now, in this country where abortion is still a right, we’ve made it hard enough for some to access that women are already doing it on their own. Google searches for how to self-induce an abortion have gone up precipitously since 2011. In Texas, home to some of the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation in the country, it’s been estimated that between 100,000 and 240,000 women ages 18 to 49 have tried to end a pregnancy without medical assistance. And in states with the fewest clinics, there’s been a gap between what the birth rate should be, and the pregnancies whose outcomes are known. Embryos and fetuses are going missing. Where do you think they’re going? And what of the women who carried them?
All this may not mean much to anti-choicers: Around 200 American women died from mangled abortions in each of the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, while some 926,000 abortions happened in 2014; if our opponents truly believe that life begins at conception, then, well, you can do the math. But it should mean something to those who truly care about women’s health, even if it doesn’t faze those who use “women’s health” as a talking point to shamelessly push misogynistic legislation. (No, Katy Talento, the pill does not “[break] your uterus for good,” but guess what can? Knitting needles.) We may not be able to use the bloody, agonizing plight of women to change the minds of the anti-choice minority, but we can use it to mobilize our majority. And we should.
So right now, on the floor of my living room, amidst the Legos and toy trains and crushed raisins my toddler has left in his wake, there’s the sign I’ll be carrying at the Women’s March on Saturday, one day before the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: a coat hanger, surrounded by a circle, with a line slashed through it. Since my miscarriage last year, my doctors have advised me to wait before trying to get pregnant again. Come Saturday, I’m marching for the baby I still hope to have. But more than anything, I’m marching for the one I already do have, the three-year-old boy who asked me last week if Trump said mean things because he “was hungry or tired or missed his mommy” – who understands, even now, that people’s decisions are affected by their circumstances and that those circumstances are variable. I don’t want him to lose his empathy. I don’t want him to live in a world of normalized “locker room talk” where he feels entitled to more rights than others have. I don’t want him to become a father until he’s ready to become one. And so I’ll march and hope and, yes, pray. Please, please, come join me.