The End Of Roe V. Wade Is Coming. But States Like Ohio Have Rolled Back Abortion Rights For Years.

Last Wednesday night — a few hours after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, a few hours after the overturn of Roe v. Wade had become inevitable — I realized that my relationship to my body had changed.

I’m speaking as if the loss of Roe is a foregone conclusion, because it mostly is. Donald Trump has said that any justice he appoints will overturn >Roe. There are not enough Democrats in Congress to block Trump’s nominee or delay the vote until after the 2018 midterms, and despite some remarks from the relatively moderate Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) about opposing any nominee who has demonstrated “hostility” toward abortion rights (unlikely, given her support of Trump’s last appointee, Neil Gorsuch), neither course of action is realistic. Barring an act of God, Roe is gone. Once it’s been overturned, abortion will probably become illegal in 20 to 30 states.

This was easy to see coming. From the moment Antonin Scalia died, leaving an unexpected vacancy in a Supreme Court where three of the eight remaining members were over age 75, it was clear that SCOTUS would undergo a rapid overhaul. During his campaign, Trump promised that the repeal of Roe would “happen automatically” should he win the election:

“If we put another two or perhaps three justices on, [overturning Roe is] really what’s going to be, that’s what will happen…I am putting pro-life justices on the court.”

For the past two years, at least, everyone in this country who cares about reproductive rights should have been in crisis mode. Instead, we spent Roe’s final years treating it as a triviality, an ancient and burdensome bit of “identity politics” to be accorded lip service when we paid attention to it at all.

I’m not just talking about the anti-choice right, the clinic bombers and Planned Parenthood video fakers and zealots, the bigots who screamed at women and denied birth control at pharmacies and paraded bloody fetus photos around town. I’m not even talking about the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump — women incapable of understanding that marrying a white man, or even giving birth to one, will not make you a white man yourself. Those women were part of the equation before Phyllis Schlafly first stepped up to a microphone and condemned the ERA; feminists have always had to factor them into our calculus, and always will. Even the justice that Trump appoints to overturn Roe is expected to be female.

I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about those of us who knew better, and who turned away.

Democrats have been worse than useless. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton felt it necessary to weigh themselves down with white, male, Catholic running mates with execrable abortion records, whether it was irascible Uncle Joe Biden (who has stated that “abortion is always wrong,” and once voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade) or Tim Kaine (who has supported crisis pregnancy centers, abstinence-only education, late-term abortion bans, and, in his words, “appropriate and reasonable checks on the right to abortion”). The sole exception in this century was John Kerry, who was white, male, and Catholic, and who — though his voting record was less grim than Kaine’s or Biden’s — took time to publicly declare, “I don’t like abortion.”

Presidential campaigns were only able to produce all these tepid white men because there were so many of them, a deep and deeply mediocre bench of Democrats willing to compromise and sell out women’s health at the first whiff of opposition. The excuse given to feminists was always that these men were only “personally” anti-choice, that their beliefs would not affect their actions. There is, of course, no such thing as a purely “personal” belief that someone else should be stripped of her constitutional rights. If these men’s bigotry was truly confined to the private sphere, they would not be advocating for it on a national platform.

A reliable ally to the left would have come in handy. But the supposed vanguard of Real Leftism, throughout that 2016 election, was Bernie Sanders.

It was Sanders, a man who set himself up as the scourge of Democratic compromisers, who assured his young followers that progress could be achieved by deprioritizing abortion rights: “Once you get off of the social issues — abortion, gay rights, guns — and into the economic issues…there is a lot more agreement than the pundits understand,” Sanders told >Rolling Stone. Given a position of unique visibility and trust, he used his fame to endorse anti-choice Democrat Heath Mello (who lost) and claim that anti-choicers were welcome to run as Democrats because “you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.” Any reproductive rights organization that got in Sanders’ way was put on blast; during the 2016 campaign, he sent out newsletters condemning EMILY’s List (an organization that exists to elect pro-choice female candidates) and infamously called Planned Parenthood a part of “the establishment” he was “taking on” because it had endorsed his opponent, Hillary Clinton, during his primary run.

Make no mistake: As far as many people were concerned, if Sanders didn’t support an organization or a cause, it didn’t belong on the progressive agenda. After the Planned Parenthood gambit, Sanders’ supporters flooded the organization — which was being targeted for defunding by the GOP — with angry messages, many threatening to withdraw moral or financial support altogether: “Yes, you are ESTABLISHMENT, because you have sided with the ESTABLISHMENT, not with the real progressives! You’ve lost me,” one such comment went. “Supporting Hillary is a sure way to get me to stop supporting P.P.,” another declared on Facebook.

So this was how the left spent Roe’s last days, arguing that abortion was a mere “social issue” — maybe even an obstacle to “real progressives.” We thought we had time to squabble. No one knew that the clock was about to strike midnight, that our hard-won progress would be turned back into so many rags and pumpkins, that we’d be left running for our lives in splintering glass shoes.

Our media never conveyed a sense of crisis. There was no countdown clock to Kennedy’s retirement, no viral op-eds about the impending end of Roe. When the media engaged with abortion at all, it was by trolling. The Atlantic briefly hired, then fired, a man who’d argued that people who got abortions should be hanged. The New York Times paid the PR manager of an anti-choice group to argue that feminists were “alienating” women by embracing abortion rights.

In my own experience, pitches about reproductive rights were harder to sell under Trump than they had been under Obama; the mayfly attention span of the media, its constant need to find a fresher take, was ill-suited for the grinding end of a decades-long culture war. “It’s hard to get people to care about this stuff,” one editor told me, “because it’s the same thing that would be happening in any Republican administration.” This was true, because overturning Roe was the cumulative work of several Republican administrations; the constitutional right to abortion was slowly beaten to death over a span of 40 years, but by the end, its death throes were too familiar to be shocking.

Maybe it’s too easy to rake allies over the coals and revisit bad decisions. It’s a common part of grief, that urge to sit in the ruins, counting every shattered thing. But recrimination is less important than figuring out how to keep this from happening again.

Roe died of neglect. Centrists saw it as too polarizing to defend; leftists deemed it too safe to rally around; the media saw it as old news. Not enough people were out in the streets, screaming that Roe was in danger — and those who did were easily written off as dull, hysterical relics of the second wave.

It was easy to assume that progress, once made, could not be unmade. But Roe was never the rule. It was a startling exception. In America, only one generation, Generation X, has retained the legal right to abortion from puberty through menopause. The baby boomers got it late; the millennials, it seems, will lose it early.

Our daughters and granddaughters will spend their lives paying for the unearned optimism that allowed us to take Roe for granted.

The sense of loss I felt on Wednesday night was physical, as if my every move and word were compromised, tainted, by the government’s new control over my body. I had never considered what it might feel like to lose legal authority over my own organs, because I had been born into a world where my authority over my body was not in question — a world where I counted as a person. Personhood is easy to take for granted when you’ve got it. Freedom is always less noticeable than its absence.

Roe was lost through complacency—mine as much as anyone’s. It was lost because the rights it secured were so basic we could forget we had them.

Our daughters and granddaughters will spend their lives paying for the unearned optimism that allowed us to take Roe for granted.

But it was also lost because we failed to take the ugliness of its opposition seriously. If the Atlantic, for example, actually believed that Kevin Williamson might succeed in getting thousands of women hanged, it probably would not have published him. If Democrats truly understood that a substantial portion of this country does not believe that women or AFAB trans people are human and wants them rendered subservient, perpetually held hostage to any man who successfully impregnates them, then Democrats would have fought for Roe with everything they had. They would not have treated abortion as a rhetorical question, an easily ceded “social issue,” or some meaningless triviality they could “get off” in order to win over backwards-thinking Trump voters. The left persisted in treating abortion as a rhetorical question until the last possible second, while abortion’s opponents were always deadly serious. It should surprise no one that the game went to the players who understood the stakes.

We are in a time when civil rights are being rolled back across the board. The fall of Roe shows us how that could play out, both in terms of the legal specifics — the “right to privacy,” upon which Roe is founded, is also the reason states are forbidden from outlawing same-sex marriage or criminalizing gay sex — and in terms of the wider ideological battle that has to take place before anyone loses their personhood. If the affected communities are lulled into believing they have nothing to fear, while those who would annihilate them are mainstreamed and given platforms to air their toxic ideas, it should surprise no one when the balance of power shifts against the marginalized. In a time when fascism is on the rise, we do not have the luxury of feeling safe. We must take every threat seriously, we must always play for real stakes, because our opponents never do anything else. If you love something, now is the time to defend it. Because when you next need it, some sunny summer weekday, you may turn around and find it gone.

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