The landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion celebrated 45 years earlier in January.
For the occasion, I spoke with the woman who argued the case in front of the highest court in the land: Sarah Weddington was a young lawyer when she started working to challenge the illegality of abortion in Texas, and not yet 30 when she found herself in front of the Supreme Court.
When she won, women won. But it’s a win we’ve been struggling to hold onto ever since.
That was 1973. Times have changed. The most recent data available regarding public opinion about legal abortion shows that Americans are largely in favor; last year, at 57 percent, that figure was as high as it’s ever been. Yet, in 2018, a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion hangs in the balance of a particularly imperiled political atmosphere.
When I asked Weddington what made this moment different than previous ones when it comes to public opinion regarding Roe vs. Wade, she immediately pointed to the state of the Supreme Court.
Wednesday afternoon, news broke that Justice Anthony Kennedy would be stepping away from his longtime post at the end of July. Since at least 2005, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired, Kennedy has often served as a swing vote on the Court, swaying rulings on charged decisions surrounding same-sex marriage, abortion rights, civil liberties and beyond.
Almost immediately after the announcement, my inbox began to fill with prepared statements from women’s advocacy organizations, from Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights to the National Women’s Law Center and beyond. The messages were largely consistent: that the alarm has been sounded for American civil liberties. That the stakes have never been higher. That our very democracy is on the line.
I instinctively reached for a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that took up residence at my deskside in January of 2016, and opened a dog-eared page to what felt like an eerily applicable quote: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
Here is the truth: The alarm has been blaring for decades, so consistently that most only seldomly register the noise. The water in the tub is already uncomfortably warm; we’ve gotten used to the heat. But the temperature is on the rise again, and we can’t afford not to feel it.
Preliminary lists of potential appointees should make anyone who supports a woman’s right to bodily autonomy fearful; between Gorsuch and the yet-to-be-named new appointee, the balance will likely tilt steeply to the right. Back when President Trump wasn’t courting conservative voters, he deemed himself “very pro-choice.” But on the campaign trail, he promised evangelicals that he would appoint justices who would overturn the landmark ruling. (Like most things, it’s unlikely to be as straightforward as the president believes.)
But even without a complete reversal, the likelihood of more regulations will tighten access — the legal equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. If you want to better understand how the chips could fall, there are several roads toward the end of abortion in America, some rockier than others, and they all lead back to the bleak times.
As of now, antiabortion rights group have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake the cast of the Supreme Court in their ideological image.
So the question for women — and really, for anyone who values constitutional liberties and a woman’s right to choose — is: Where do we go from here?
Before we throw up our hands and bemoan all our dearth of power in the moment, though, consider that there is just one answer: forward.
Because what this moment means for women is that we can’t ignore the rising heat, or presume it will go down on its own.
We can’t lean into the idea that it’s out of our hands.
What this moment means for women is: vote in the primaries, and vote out anyone who doesn’t represent your interests.
Run yourself, or support others who take up the torch. Volunteer your time, your energy, your money, your experience.
What this means for women is that the battle isn’t over.