Column: The end may be coming for Roe vs. Wade. But abortion will still be legal in many states
Consider this an elegy for Roe vs. Wade, a lamentation for the impending death of a law that has enabled millions of American women over the past half-century to control their bodies, their economic lives, their personal fates.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Supreme Court of the United States, now dominated by religious conservatives who have signaled again and again that they detest the 1973 decision that legalized female agency, is itching to erase it, stare decisis be damned.
Or, in lay terms, precedent schmecedent.
We now live in a country where women with unwanted pregnancies will be forced to bear children — in one state so far, but probably two dozen eventually. Even if they have been raped. By a stranger. By a lover. By a teacher, a minister, a father or a brother.
We now live in a country where a state has willingly turned itself into a North Korean-style hotbed of snitchery, and others will undoubtedly follow.
The idea that this state, Texas, prides itself on its love of individual liberty and autonomy is laughable. Its overwhelmingly white and male Legislature has burrowed its way into the uteruses of its least powerful citizens — the overwhelmingly poor, Black and Latino women who will no longer have control over their own bodies.
The new Texas law, which is patently unconstitutional, outlaws most abortions after roughly six weeks — before many women even know they are pregnant — and does not allow state officials to enforce it. Instead, the powers of enforcement have been turned over to the populace at large, sanctioning a truly sick form of vigilantism.
Any average Joe has the right to sue anyone he suspects of having aided and abetted an abortion — medical staff, the receptionist at the abortion clinic, the sister who lent $600 for the procedure. If the lawsuit is successful, the snitch will receive a $10,000 bounty, plus legal costs.
The person who received the abortion cannot be sued. Perhaps even the Texas Legislature understands that forcing a woman through unwanted childbirth is punishment enough. After all, researchers have found that women are about 14 times more likely to die during childbirth than during an abortion, which is one of the safest medical procedures on the planet.
The high court, with its unassailable conservative supermajority, has feigned a bizarre helplessness in the face of the Texas Legislature’s weaselly legal shenanigans. By a vote of 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joining his liberal colleagues in dissent, the court declared it could not lay a finger on the Texas law because it presents such “complex and novel” procedural questions.
And anyway, a less bizarre case challenging a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in the fall. With this case, the court is expected to deal the death blow to Roe.
I cannot contemplate the demise of Roe without holding a thought for the courageous doctors and clinic staff who have been injured or killed in the course of helping women exercise their constitutional right to end pregnancies.
They are heroes like George Tiller of Kansas, the late-term abortion doctor who treated many women carrying wanted pregnancies, but who discovered in their second terms that their babies had anomalies judged incompatible with life, or that childbirth would cause the mothers irreparable physical harm.
He was the target of relentless violence and harassment but never stopped caring for patients — and never stopped providing abortions.
In 1986, his Wichita clinic was firebombed.
In 1991, it was blockaded by abortion foes.
In 1993, an antiabortion extremist shot Tiller in both arms.
“His staff is really great,” one of his patients told me in 1996. “Everyone there is a warrior. The cleaning lady carries a Glock.”
In the early 2000s, on his top-rated TV show, then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly repeatedly called him “Tiller the baby killer.”
In 2007, Kansas accused Tiller of breaking its stringent abortion law.
In 2009, the state’s flimsy case went to trial. The jury acquitted Tiller in less than an hour.
Two months later, a Christian extremist shot Tiller in the head at his church, where he was working as an usher.
Tiller’s mantra, printed on lapel pins handed out at his funeral, was “Trust Women.”
In spite of the patriarchal impulses of the Supreme Court and Republican-dominated legislatures, the majority of Americans feel the same way.
If there is any good news to be gleaned as we anticipate a post-Roe world, it is that abortion will continue to be legal in at least 21 states.
Some states — among them California, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont and New York — have protected the right to abortion and strengthened those laws over the years.
In California, for example, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified midwives may legally perform early abortion surgical procedures.
In 2019, as antiabortion fervor swept many states, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a first-of-its-kind requirement that requires the state’s public universities to offer students medication abortion, used to terminate a pregnancy in the first 10 weeks.
California has long been at the forefront of reproductive rights.
In 1969, four years before the Roe ruling, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that California’s Constitution guarantees the right to abortion.
And unlike dozens of other states, California requires private insurers to include abortion as a covered service.
There is still a slim chance that Congress, with its razor-thin partisan margins, could pass a bill guaranteeing the right to abortion, which it should have done years ago.
Still, how shameful that the U.S. Supreme Court, charged with protecting our constitutional rights, is about to put a stake through the heart of Roe, relegating women, mostly the poor, to second-class status.
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