A fragile freedom — abortion and the American divide

This coming week, the nearly 50-year-old right to legal abortion is in immediate danger in the US. The newly conservative Supreme Court is preparing to hear the argument on Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi case which could overturn Roe vs Wade, the landmark decision that protected abortion rights across the country.

Justices are dreaming up questions for the argument in their wood-panelled chambers; their clerks are composing memos, consulting each other in marbled corridors; teenagers, who have always assumed they would have access to free and legal abortion, are hurriedly googling for “Roe vs Wade”; octogenarians such as my mother, whose college roommate almost died after an illegal abortion, are digging up old stories as much of the country thinks: how on earth have we got to this point?

It seems not so long ago that we were supposed to be moving in an orderly way towards a sunnier, more tolerant, liberal culture. The idea that this basic right that most of us grew up with and barely even think about could be taken away would not have occurred to us. But how have we slipped backwards?

Alarms went off near midnight on August 31, when the Supreme Court decided not to block the sly Texas law that offers private citizens a $10,000 bounty to bring lawsuits against anyone who performs or helps with an abortion after a “foetal heartbeat” can be detected, which is around six weeks. The following day, it became incredibly hard to get an abortion in Texas.

About this time, I saw a tweet: “I didn’t think Texas would fall to the Taliban so quickly.”

An anti-abortion sign held aloft outside the Supreme Court © Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Pro-choice demonstrator outside the Supreme Court
Pro-choice demonstrator outside the Supreme Court © Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The discordance between how most Americans feel about abortion rights and the decision of the court is disturbing. According to a new poll, 60 per cent of Americans want to uphold Roe vs Wade, 27 per cent want to overturn it, and two-thirds think the Texas law should be overturned. One remembers the words of the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia when he wrote: “A system of government that makes the people subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”

Chart showing differing US views on abortion

I’ve never liked the post-Trumpian melodramatic tendency towards the cliché that we are suddenly living in The Handmaid’s Tale. But one does slightly recognise that feeling when the heroine goes to a coffee shop one morning and finds that her credit card doesn’t work because women aren’t allowed to have money.

Somehow, the familiar rules of the world are changing around us; the ordinary, wholly taken for granted, basic experience of modern womanhood feels suddenly and direly imperilled. (Suddenly, of course, is wrong. The encroachment on this right has been happening for a long time, the rise of rightwing judicial power has been evident to those who have been paying attention, but to many the shock of Roe vs Wade actually on the chopping block feels dramatic.)

How did we get here? Recently, when I was teaching a David Foster Wallace essay, “Authority and American Usage”, I was startled to come across the following passage: “In this reviewer’s opinion, the only really coherent position is one that is both pro-life and pro-choice . . . the basically inarguable soundness of the principle ‘when in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it’, appears to me to require any reasonable American to be pro-life. At the same time, however, the principle ‘when in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it . . . ’ is an unassailable part of the democratic pact we Americans all make with one another . . . and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be pro-choice.”

Whatever you think of his playful reasoning, you can see why it startled me. The possibility of entertaining the other side’s ideas, authentically wrestling with them, ultimately coming to your own conclusion, possibly synthesising the two, but not feeling total contempt and fury and disdain towards anyone who feels differently from you, seems bizarre and exotic in the current climate. This intricately individual, intellectually dexterous sense of politics is so alien to us now. Can one entertain the possibility, in these sorts of debates, that someone on the other side is not deranged or dangerously stupid or malignant, but has just come to another set of conclusions?

For myself, I have always been adamantly and unambiguously pro-choice, but I have wondered about how to categorise a foetus. I have trouble thinking of a 14-week foetus as a “clump of cells”. Having seen the heartbeat on a sonogram at eight weeks, I secretly feel sympathy with the interpretation of this ghostly smudge as a “life”. I nonetheless feel strongly that every woman should make such a personal decision on her own. Can one afford these types of multi-layered beliefs? Can one think for oneself? These days it can feel as if we aren’t supposed to.

The annual Women’s March in Washington DC, October 2
The annual Women’s March in Washington DC, October 2 © Bryan Dozier/Shutterstock

The American cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan wrote about abortion: “The truth is that the best argument on each side is a damn good one, and until you acknowledge that fact, you aren’t speaking or even thinking honestly about the issue.” I wonder about this philosophy more generally. Would it be in our interest to seriously entertain the “best argument” of the other side? What would that even look like in terms of remaking our political landscape? Would all of Twitter just shut down, like a factory town once the factory is closed?

Earlier this month, the best argument for the other side was not available at one branch of the most fashionable independent bookstore in Manhattan. A former student of mine went in with the intention of buying New York Times columnist and Columbia professor John McWhorter’s new bestseller, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, which is critical of the current “woke” narrative surrounding race. The bookseller somewhat scornfully informed him that they did not carry the book. When my former student asked when they would get it in, the bookseller said: “We will never carry that book.”

Dr Lynn Negus, left, and Debbie Thyfault on opposite sides of the debate in California, 1985
Dr Lynn Negus, left, and Debbie Thyfault on opposite sides of the debate in California, 1985 © Wally Fong/AP

I bring all this up because I think it is relevant to how on earth we have arrived at this point. I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that the passionate political identity a surprisingly large number of us stake out is based on us versus them, the sane versus the lunatics, the last hope for humanity versus the scum of the earth.

Here is what I mean. My husband has a friend who is an anti-vaxxer. I find myself filled with an unseemly anger towards him, as if he were single-handedly responsible for the losses of the past two years, the people who have died, and the smaller losses of graduations and school plays, and the sanity slowly depleted by dragging days of Zoom classes. I actually want to kill him.

My husband tries to explain that coming from where he came from — on and off public assistance, with physically abusive parents — his distrust of institutions and authority runs so deep that it is not something I can understand. I don’t have the patience for this type of human nuance conversation. I just want him to get the vaccine! Eventually he does, by the way, and I am able to calm down, but I can’t help thinking this out-of-control rage I was feeling is part of why we are where we are. Why am I so ready to demonise this random person who is unvaccinated? There is all this ambient hatred and contempt flying around, ready to attach itself to someone politically alien to you.

I think we can see a direct line from this tribal thinking, this bitter fury against the enemy, to irrational positions being staked out, disruptive votes being cast, Donald Trump rising to power, an alleged sexual assailant being sworn in to the Supreme Court, Republicans refusing to admit what happened on January 6, Roe vs Wade hanging by a thread.

Anti-mask, anti-vax activists have hijacked the slogans of the pro-choice movement for their own purposes: “My body, my choice” is emblazoned on a popular T-shirt with a mask with a slash through it. People march through a small town in Florida shouting “my body, my choice” (masks, not abortion). Someone raises a cardboard sign outside the Texas capital, “my body, my choice” (abortion, not masks). A protester in upstate New York carries a sign, “my body, my choice” (masks, not abortion). A protester in Philadelphia wears a mask emblazoned with “my body, my choice” (abortion, not masks). One can be forgiven for feeling that the words have lost their meaning, that they are worn out and bleached of content.

In some sense, both sides are harnessing the American language of freedom and choice for their own purposes. There is a dark partisan wrestling over ownership of the glorious, ambiguous, dangerous American notion of freedom. Which life matters? The life of an embryo the size of a grain of rice? The life of an 80-year-old lady who is in the elevator with you? The immunocompromised eight-year-old down the hall? Maybe just your own?

‘My body, my choice’ — for reproductive freedom © Chelsea Purgahn/Texas Tribune

‘My body, my choice’ — against the mask mandate © Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

There is, of course, no innate reason why mask wearing and vaccines should be political. We can imagine another possible world in which Trump proudly claimed responsibility for the rapid development of the vaccine, and bragged extravagantly about how patriotic it would be to get vaccinated, about how the vaccine was making America great again (“I am responsible for the GREATEST scientific advance in all human history!!”), and the vaccine would have been happily taken up by the Capitol riot crowd. These pandemic signs and symbols have no innate leftwing or rightwing value. It’s as if the powerful resentment exists a priori and must seek and find issues on which to alight.

One can get lost in the ironies, the exquisite hypocrisies. On Instagram I saw a woman holding a sign: “Texas won’t make a 12-year-old wear a mask to school but they will force her to have a baby.” This square of cardboard pretty much encapsulates the total insanity of where we are. But intellectual coherence is not the order of the day. What matters is the side.

Each side feels the other side is killing it, taking away the most precious of its freedoms, legislating away everything it cares about. Each side feels it is imprisoned in some Foucauldian nightmare of state control over its very ability to live and breathe freely. And yet, here we are. The side is stronger than rationality. It is stronger than morality. It is stronger than self-protection or science or compassion or the evidence of the senses. The side is ferociously powerful, all that matters. This way of engaging our politics on the right and on the left is clearly toxic. One side seems far more toxic, of course, but the habit breeds a kind of mob tribalism that can serve no one’s interests.

We have come to a dispiriting point in which our health, our freedom, our climate, our infrastructure have become, to those who govern us and vast swaths of the public who vote for them, a giant glorified game. By which I mean there is a sense of teams but not teams like in baseball, where you are congenially tossing around a ball, but teams as in The Hunger Games, where your fleeting alliance is supposed to rip your opponents limb from limb.

This mutual fury has fuelled a real, tangible, terrifying rightwing power that moderate Republican conservatives in the suburbs and cities don’t even want. In America, the clear majority of people would like to retain free and legal access to abortion for themselves and their daughters, at least in most cases, while the empowered extremes follow a logic of their own.

A woman shows her support for Roe vs Wade in Washington
A woman shows her support for Roe vs Wade in Washington, 1982 © Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

An anti-abortion protester at an anniversary rally for Roe vs Wade in 1983 © Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

But back to the clerks writing memos in preparation for the argument, perhaps taking a break to play on the full basketball court on the fifth floor of the Supreme Court building. Back to the teenagers searching the internet for “Roe vs Wade” or “online abortion pills”. Back to the very real possibility of the landmark abortion decision being overturned, of there being large pockets of the country where you wake up one day and it is impossible to get an abortion, where you will have to travel out of state and if you can’t afford to or can’t manage the logistics, too bad. (In Texas now, the median distance one has to travel to find an out-of-state clinic is 542 miles. Before the recent law, the average distance to an in-state clinic was 17 miles. Not to mention that there are waiting periods and other obstacles in many nearby states.)

In the end, the decision itself may not be as meaningful in purely practical terms as it seems. The court has already signalled that it is done policing the states’ right to in essence abolish access to legal abortion. The reality is that no matter what the court decides, some states will adopt laws, like Texas, curtailing and in effect prohibiting abortion, unhindered by this court, and other states will retain the right, creating a disheartening chequerboard of reproductive freedom. But the symbolism remains powerful, and the reversal of Roe vs Wade after half a century will, if it happens, be felt as a terrible blow.

With its careful attention to precedent, and Talmudic readings of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is often seen as an elegant component of American democracy. But in these anxious days one thinks of something Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891: “High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”

Katie Roiphe is director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism programme at New York University. Her latest book is ‘The Power Notebooks

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