Is Losing “Roe” Actually A Feminist Outcome?
Is Losing “Roe” Actually A Feminist Outcome?
Last Friday, in a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down the ruling Roe v Wade via its decision on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Across the country, understandably, frightened and angry young women are protesting; screaming and weeping.
The organized, institutional, heavily funded US feminist movement, which for fifty years has predicated American feminist ideology, and its own donor appeals, on the foundation of defending Roe, is calling this ruling a travesty.
I am going to argue that the defeat of Roe is not in fact a defeat of women but a necessary evolution in the law, in response to women’s ascendancy in America over the last fifty years.
Before I do, though, I warn that the Roe decision is being used as a pretext for a campaign to delegitimize the Supreme Court. This anti-SCOTUS campaign fits in as part of the larger war on our democratic institutions, about which I have been writing in The Bodies of Others, and elsewhere.
Members of the Court are being abused, intimidated and threatened in ways that are the definition of “un-American.”
Before the ruling, protestors “doxxed” members of the Court (exposed their personal information) and picketed their homes. In May, 2022, the then-White House Spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, refused to condemn those who disclosed the private information of the Justices. [https://www.foxnews.com/media/psaki-disturbs-twitter-her-disgusting-response-leftists-doxxing-supreme-court-justices]
This past week, after the Dobbs decision, the DNC chairman, Jaime Harrison, sounding just like an opposition leader in a full-on pre-1989 Soviet-satellite nation, called the Supreme Court “illegitimate”. [https://www.nationalreview.com/news/dnc-chair-attacks-illegitimate-supreme-court-over-ruling-overturning-roe/.]
On Twitter, the Justices who decided in favor of overturning Roe are being doxxed again, this time along with posted instructions for making pipe bombs.
The White House itself used language that departed from the important American tradition of reverence for the Supreme Court as the legitimate arbiter of the Constitution, an authority that we accept whether we like the Justices’ individual rulings or not: our own President demonized the Supreme Court’s Justices from the White House bully pulpit, calling them perpetrators of “an extreme ideology,” and damning the Dobbs decision as “a tragic error” [https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/06/24/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-supreme-court-decision-to-overturn-roe-v-wade/]:
“Make no mistake: This decision is the culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law. It’s a realization of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court, in my view.”
Moving on from my noting a red-light-flashing assault from many fronts on yet another aspect of our tripartite system, on our traditions and on our rule of law — is Dobbs really a “tragic mistake”?
Is it indeed, as liberal feminist narratives have held for five decades, the outcome of attacks on the nation’s women as a whole, by sadistic, misogynist, paternalistic old white men?
Or does the end of Roe represent something very different?
I believe that the Dobbs decision was an almost inevitable reaction to devastating overreach by the organized pro-choice movement, especially in the last twenty years.
I also believe that it represents not a defeat of women, but rather that it is a testament to the reality of the evolution of women’s growing authority and power in this country.
Before you throw your computer across the room, or doxx or deplatform me (hard to do, as I‘ve been deplatformed five times already), please hear me out.
I am pro-choice, in the sense that in no way, hard as I have tried, can I see how women can have basic equality or self-determination in any society if they cannot choose to terminate a pregnancy within the first trimester. I’ve explained my tortured feelings about this issue in a 1995 essay that has been widely reproduced over the years, Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric. [This essay is elsewhere in this Substack, and also here: https://lib.tcu.edu/staff/bellinger/abortion/wolf-our-bodies.pdf]
In this essay, I warned that while I was pro-choice, I also recognized that the death of a fetus is a real death, and that an abortion always represents a loss’; that we as feminists risked becoming increasingly hard-hearted and soulless if we continued to embrace a discourse in which a fetus was merely “a clump of cells”, if we persisted in pretending that abortion was spiritually meaningless, and if we continued to posit that a second- or even third trimester abortions were nothing more bloody or catastrophic than “personal choices”.
I also warned that such mechanistic, amoral language and such increasingly monstrous policies would eventually also create a political scenario that in time was certain to lose: these policies would eventually lose us the reasonable middle: the majority of the country that supports abortion rights in the first trimester but that withdraws its support progressively as pregnancies progress.
I don’t mean always to be Cassandra. It is a drag. But nota bene, that is exactly what has come about in this past week.
Today, a woman — a woman — posted to me on Gettr: “I have always been on [board] with 1st trimester abortions. But when they started pushing for late term abortions I could no longer go along with that. So if I am forced to choose full term abortions or no abortions, I am going to side with no abortions. The left just had to keep pushing and that is where I draw the line. I am hoping that we can come together and dial back the insanity.”
I agree with this Everywoman. But organized feminist pro-choice activists increasingly ignored those millions who shared this woman’s reasoned position, and did so to their own destruction.
Pro-choice activists were not content to defend the right to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester, which are the limits on readily available abortion throughout Western Europe (where, notably, there is almost no anti-choice activism).
The organized feminist left were not content to use the language or policies that polls supported, of seeking a country in which abortion would be “safe, legal and rare.”
Rather, they pushed, in state after state, to enshrine that “right” up until very the day of a baby’s birth.
At what point does a “right” become a murder?
This is hard to believe, but a number of blue states have no time limit at all for how late in a pregnancy a woman can choose to abort. “States that allow for late-term abortions with no state-imposed thresholds are Alaska, Colorado, District of Columbia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont.” [https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/what-states-allow-late-term-abortion.]
The overreach went on on other fronts: the pro-choice movement was not content to secure the right to abortion only for adult women, who can be expected to know what is best for them and who are also legally in charge of themselves.
Rather, it went after teens — by the millions.
When I was growing up, my friends and I were heavily influenced by the discourse of Planned Parenthood, NARAL and other pro-choice groups. I am grateful to Planned Parenthood for its provision to teens such as myself and my friends, of safe and affordable contraceptives, and knowledge about how to use them.
But along with that valuable offering came another intensely messaged discourse that was purely destructive. Abortion rights groups insisted in the 70s, and to this day, that teen girls (I write “girls” here intentionally, as the pro-choice groups and I mean “minors”) can and should make the decision to abort, if they choose to do so, without parental involvement.
As the National Abortion Federation writes, “By the time they turn 20, about 40% of American women have been pregnant at least once. Many of these young women have little understanding of their bodies and have begun having sexual intercourse before knowing about ways to prevent pregnancy.”[http://www.prochoice.org/pubs_research/publications/downloads/about_abortion/teenage_women.pdf]
As a feminist, and as a mother and stepmother, my reaction to this statistic and to the description of its context, is: isn’t that what’s wrong?
Doesn’t this a shocking statistic suggest a stunning failure on the part of all of us in terms of informing, protecting and supporting teenage girls?
Isn’t that situation something to change, via the family, culture, and loved ones around teenage girls, and not simply to patch up via providing children with limitless abortions in the traumatic, confusing context of zero required parental knowledge?
So the pro-choice movement lost the middle of America — as well as losing the moral high ground — by its insistence that, state by state, we must allow teenage girls to be able to choose abortions without parental consent or even knowledge.
The National Abortion Federation objects to state laws that compel disclosure to parents or parental consent in order to obtain an abortion. The group has kinder words for school counsellors, and for medical professionals advising the teen, than it does for parents.
As a result of this anti-parent bias and of some states’ laws preventing parents from the right to be informed at all, 39 per cent of teens’ abortions take place without any parental knowledge.
As the pro-choice organization’s “Fact Sheet” “Teenage Women, Abortion and the Law” puts it, “Fact: Laws restricting teen access to abortion are coercive.” It goes on to explain that laws to inform parents of teens’ pregnancies, are oppressive.
But are those views “facts”? A fourteen year old reasonably enough can’t be presumed to drive a car safely, can’t sign up for military duty, can’t vote, can’t own property in her own name.
Why? Because she is a child.
But the pro-choice movement wants to put her in a situation in which she is making a monumental decision to end the life of her fetus — a decision that will affect the girl emotionally, and certainly her fetus physically, forever — advised only by self-interested, ideologically driven adult strangers, who do not even know the girl?
There is other overreach on the part of the pro-choice movement. The movement insisted on adding the “right” for abortions to be paid for by the state.
It may or may not be good practical policy for a state to pay for abortions, as it may or may not be good practical policy for the state to pay for college education.
But is state-funded abortion really a “right”?
I know a number of people, moderate politically, who are Catholics or Orthodox Jews. They say that they would not lobby against another adult’s private decision to have an abortion. But they draw the line at being asked to fund it, because of their own moral or religious principles.
Is that wrong?
By pushing to make abortion not just a private choice by adults, which represents the strongest argument in their rhetorical arsenal, but also by extending it to a state-funded “right” that implicates others in supporting it, as well as via these other examples of over-reach, the pro-choice movement exceeded what had been their limited defensible, indeed necessary, position on the moral and civilizational spectrum.
The result? A country that has 629,828 abortions a year, most of them to women in their 20s. [https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/abortion.htm] Almost 200 per 1000 live births.
Just about two babies out of twelve are aborted.
Doesn’t this mean that a generation of women in their 20s, year by year — are alone without support; ill-informed about contraception, or can’t afford it; feel desperate in relationship to their choices, and are in a traumatizing state of crisis, with something awful having happened in their formative years?
Isn’t that a national issue that should primarily concern us?
What does it do to women that two of ten of them, by the time they are 30, felt that they had to, and did, choose abortions? Whether their contraception did not work or whether they and their partners were careless or ignorant of it and did not use it, or whether the men who impregnated them may have forced them, or whether they were raped — what does it say about our willingness to let young women go through a nightmare situation, in that they got pregnant against their wishes and in that they felt that they had no other choice but to choose abortion?
Surely this crisis in the lives of women in their 20s is what the parents and leaders of America should be concerned about, rather than simplistically throwing ideologies at this situation — and at these young women — from one direction or another.
What would a truly feminist, truly motherly world focus on as policy and culture, to nurture, empower and support these millions of women in their 20s who face this desperate, miserable “choice”?
Surely contraception that is free or cheap, readily available, fully explained. Surely real prosecutions of rapists and abusers, to deter sexual predators and date rapists. Surely free secondary and higher education, the antidote to the poverty and hopelessness that must lead many of these young women to feel that they cannot be decent mothers or even afford to bring a healthy child to term. Surely, if you wanted fewer young women to feel driven to the choice of abortion, you’d want safe, engaging day care centers and nurseries at those affordable universities and free community colleges.
Surely, I’d add, training in responsible use of firearms, so that they could defend themselves against and deter abusers.
Surely also young women of all races and economic backgrounds should be receiving from our culture the message that they are precious, that they are gifts of God. Surely they should receive the message that if they choose to bring their child to term, welcoming adoptive parents will raise the child lovingly. Surely they should receive the message that when and if they are indeed ready to have a baby, it too will be a precious gift from God and that they will not be alone. And that no baby would be less cherished by all of us, than any other.
If we had such a culture of support and care for young women and for their real needs to have personal, sexual lives while not becoming mothers before they choose to do so — and if we cared for every single baby in our nation with true reverence and love — and if we retained abortion rights only for adults, and only in the first trimester or with the exceptions later on for the life and health of the mom that are available now in every state — this always-sad choice to abort would indeed be “safe, legal and rare.”
And the country would not be so riven.
But do we give young women — especially poor young women, especially young women of color, or young women who have been victims of sexual abuse or assault — — these messages, or this level of protection, encouragement, investment, education, help with childcare, or with nurture and support of their little families, as a culture?
Indeed we do not. We propose and embrace rather a culture of death, of disposable humans, and increasingly, of flat-out eugenics. Maryland has proposed bills that allow babies to die without penalty after they are born. I initially was inclined to believe the “fact-checkers” who claimed this was a myth, til I read the bill. [https://trackbill.com/bill/maryland-house-bill-626-pregnant-persons-freedom-act-of-2022/2211653/]. It’s true.
And we ask our young women to numb themselves, sexualize themselves, and get on with fitting into that death culture — one in which their potential for maternality has zero sanctity; zero value; one in which fetuses, like babies themselves, are fungible.
Apart from these variations of overreach, as I mentioned above, I feel that the loss of Roe also came about because women in America had evolved and grown in influence and leadership.
What do I mean by that?
In 1973, when Roe was decided, women had just begun to be accepted into many universities. [https://www.bestcolleges.com/news/analysis/2021/03/21/history-women-higher-education/]. Marital rape was legal. Contraception was hard to secure in many places. Housing, credit and property ownership discrimination against women was not yet illegal. It was legal to discriminate against pregnant workers and to use gender in discriminating against even lawyers in law firms. Few significant professions had female parity. [https://www.fastcompany.com/90360082/here-are-all-the-basic-rights-america-denied-to-your-mother-and-grandmother.] Date rape was hard to prosecute. Rape was hard to prosecute. Incest and sexual abuse of children within the family were still shameful secrets for which the victim was blamed. Single mothers and teen mothers were stigmatized. One could go on and on about how many fewer options, and how much less power, women in America had when Roe was decided. Women really were victims of powerlessness in 1973, helpless to change their circumstances, in ways that supported the argument that they needed a Federal-level right to abortion access, simply to survive as human beings.
Today, while we still need to close many gaps in gender equality, the world is very different. That’s what some of the Justices’ more well-reasoned decisions to overturn Roe, rightly evaluate.
An American woman does have choices and powers she did not have in 1973. She can buy contraceptives. Birth control pills are now over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. [https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/contraception/combined-contraceptive-pill/] IUDs are over 99% effective at preventing pregnancy for seven years. [https://www.mirena-us.com/utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=MRN_DTC_cpc_google_UNBR&utm_content=TRE_BC1_DK_PHR_X_TRE-BC1&utm_term=effectiveness%20of%20iud&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI-4CwtIbM-AIV3g6tBh1JmwtlEAAYAyAAEgIzEPD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds]. A woman or her partner can buy condoms anywhere, without secrecy or guilt in most communities. A package of 12 condoms costs $7.98. Information about contraception is easy to find. Single mothers, unmarried mothers, are no longer ostracized in most communities. Teen mothers are no longer typically exiled from their communities in 2022, as they were in 1973. Women in America in 2022 have access to professions, credit, degrees.
That does not mean that an unintended pregnancy is ever easy — but it does mean that the circumstances that made Roe seem obviously needed, have changed; in such a way that state by state legislation can reflect local norms and values in 2022, more accurately than can a one-size-fits-all national decree predicated on the presumption of absolute female helplessness that was a reality fifty years ago but that is no longer the case.
Another change in the last fifty years has to do with the science of pregnancy. Due to advances in prenatal treatment and premature birth neonatal care, “viability” has moved back earlier and earlier in a given pregnancy, so that the “viability” language in Roe is out of date, and the rigid one-two-three trimester structure of Roe seems more and more brutal and arbitrary, as the opinion points out.
The abortion rights fight now is no longer as it has been characterized for 50 years by liberal feminists: it is no longer a matter of helpless young women being victimized by oppressive, old white men.
Rather, in 2022 this fight is one between women and women: between female leaders at high levels who simply, deeply, disagree.
It’s women outside the Supreme Court who are protesting for Roe. And it’s women outside the Supreme Court who are protesting against it.
It’s women who lead the pro-choice movement. And it’s women who lead the pro-life movement.
It’s a female justice, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was a decisive voice in the overturning of Roe. And it is two female justices, Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, who are among the dissenting.
We have to face the fact that this battle is no longer one along gender lines of men versus women. Indeed there is now almost a statistically insignificant different in the view of women and men in terms of support for abortion rights. Where there is indeed a gender gap, it‘s the opposite of what you’d expect from the feminist narrative of oppressive men: far more women than men are pro-life: https://www.vox.com/2019/5/20/18629644/abortion-gender-gap-public-opinion
So this battle, rather, is between two groups of principled women with heartfelt convictions who see the value of female bodies, pregnancy, babies, sexuality, and society’s responsibilities, in authentically oppositional ways.
Liberal pro-choice feminists have long disregarded or dismissed conservative or pro- life feminists as having “false consciousness” or “internalizing the patriarchy”. I have warned since the early 1990s that this dismissiveness was going to be a huge mistake; and so it has proven.
Pro-life feminists — conservative feminists such as Justice Barrett — are not Stepford Wives or brainwashed fundamentalists, in spite of caricatures from the Left.
Most pro-life feminists I know hold thoughtful views about abortion that are in fact feminist positions: insofar as these pro-life women assign pregnant women, and the society around them, roles of responsibility and agency that are different, and more serious about maternality, than are the roles assigned to pregnant women and society by many pro-choice feminists.
Ironically, conservative pro-life feminists see pregnant women, or women faced with unintended pregnancies, or families with unexpectedly pregnant teenage daughters, as being more capable, resourceful, morally adult, and responsible, than do many feminists on the Left, whose discourse tends to cast all unexpectedly pregnant girls and women, whatever their circumstances, as being equally helpless victims to be saved by the Daddy State (or by the right kind of nonprofit).
America has changed too since 1973 in terms of who holds political power. In state legislatures, women are a substantial plurality. In the top ten states for female representation in the legislature, over forty per cent of the state legislators are women. In Nevada, women lawmakers are the majority. [https://cawp.rutgers.edu/facts/levels-office/state-legislature/women-state-legislatures-2022].
And even where women are not the majority of state lawmakers, they are nationally the majority of voters.
So, paradoxically, sending decisions about abortion access back to the States is actually, in my reading, a truly feminist outcome.
While liberal feminists may have liked Roe as a metaphor — it felt poetically and existentially right to have the Supreme Court affirm a Constitutional right to an abortion, even if the language was not really there in the Constitution — the fact is that returning the argument to the states means putting the issue of abortion in the hands of — women. Because in election after election, more women turn out to vote than men. [https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/18/men-and-women-in-the-u-s-continue-to-differ-in-voter-turnout-rate-party-identification/]
Will women, post-Roe, have to work hard to have their own mores and values reflected in their states’ abortion laws?
Yes — but it will be women from every point of view having that debate and lobbying one another, as well as their (often-female) state representatives. And women themselves making the case to one another about what abortion means.
As the opinion itself points out, on P 65:
“Our decision returns the issue of abortion to those legislative bodies, and it allows women on both sides of the abortion issue to seek to affect the legislative process by influencing public opinion, lobbying legislators, voting, and running for office. Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so. In the last election in November 2020, women, who make up around 51.5 percent of the population of Mississippi, constituted 55.5 percent of the voters who cast ballots.” [https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf]
This is kind of a feminist conclusion for these august conservative Justices to make, in pointing out that by overturning Roe, they are putting the decisions about abortion laws in the hands of women.
And I agree with them.
Women-led citizens thus can, hopefully, be creating at state levels, a reasonable consensus reflecting majority views, about what a decent society should do to defend what many see as basic bodily autonomy while still keeping what many see as the deaths of viable innocents out of civilized bounds.
And that debate between citizens, and that advocacy, and that state-level self-determination — rather than a fiat from above, exploited by self-interested entities in such a way as to grow only more grotesque over time — is how America is supposed to work.
Justice Alito concluded: “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives. “The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations, upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” Casey, 505 U. S., at 979 (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part). That is what the Constitution and the rule of law demand.”’
Can this be argued with in good faith?
I agree, as a feminist, with the Justices in the majority: that the end of Roe is actually, believe it or not, a feminist outcome — as it is one that assigns modern American women — not the hypothetical ghost-women of 1973 — the deciding voice.
The soundness of this reasoning is why I believe, too, as an American, that the end of Roe, and the reversion of decisions about abortion to the women and men of the states, can actually even help to generate sane, locally relevant, morally-defensible abortion-related policies; and that these might even help to heal a divided nation.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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