By Raegan Boettcher
Art by Isabella Macioce
Two winters into the Biden administration with a cast of increasingly reactionary right and center-left politicians, it seems as if every other week another Republican lawmaker is attempting to strip abortion rights. With a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, questions have circulated regarding if — or when — Roe v. Wade will be overturned. On Wednesday, Jan. 12, the Rockefeller Center sponsored an online event with Dartmouth Women in Law & Politics and the Dartmouth Minority Pre-Law Association on Reproductive Justice & US Law. The event hosted guest speakers Kimberly Mutcherson, Co-Dean and Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, and Mary Ziegler, Professor at Florida State University College of Law. I attended in the hopes of gaining some insight into what activists can do to protect and support reproductive rights. Throughout the event, Ziegler provided information on the history of abortion and reproductive justice, and Mutcherson offered insight into the ways that low-income people of color are disproportionately affected by anti-abortion legislation.
Historically, anti-abortion rhetoric is fairly new, Ziegler explained. Most societies and cultures in America have had abortion practices and various forms of contraception consistently since the colonial era. Abortion laws didn’t appear in America until the late 1800s, and it wasn’t until the last fifty years that abortion and reproductive healthcare became politically divisive topics. Mutcherson theorized this was because of how visible pregnancy is now, with ultrasounds and other technology that allow us to picture a fetus long before birth. Nonetheless, the notion of reproductive justice is now more fraught than ever, and unfortunately, the situation is slated to only get worse in the near future.
With access to reproductive healthcare dwindling, the unstable and uncertain patchwork of reproductive legislature across the United States will likely get more threadbare. Over 20 states, primarily in the Midwest and the South, have trigger laws that will go into effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. This means that without Roe, these states have automatic laws that will go into effect, restricting abortion access and legality to varying concerning degrees. According to Mutcherson, “this is only the beginning”; she explained that its likely lawmakers will come for contraceptives next, targeting “the entire universe” of reproductive healthcare. Unfortunately, Ziegler and Mutcherson agreed, there is little for activists to do in this situation. Because the composition of the court is static — with lifetime appointments for justices — and trigger laws kick in automatically, activists and advocates for reproductive justice are in between a rock and a hard place.
I found this notion to be quite disheartening, particularly when the speakers began discussing what criminalizing abortion will probably look like. In the past, anti-abortion legislature has mainly targeted doctors who provide abortions or “accomplices” that bring pregnant people to abortion clinics. Some states have allowed persecution of the pregnant individual, but usually found that no one really wants to convict a pregnant person. Unfortunately, the main problem arising with the current mesh of reproductive rights is that people, particularly in the South and Midwest, will have to leave the state to access reproductive services. This means that states will have to punish these individuals in-state, rather than searching for the out-of-state doctors or accomplices to persecute instead. This will be unduly burdensome on low-income people and people of color, who are already disproportionately hurt by the criminal justice system. Systemic pressures such as increased policing in low-income communities and communities of color, money bail systems, and disproportionate sentencing for marginalized people all play a factor (amongst others).
One audience member asked how progressives and the pro-choice movement had failed to play the long game, while anti-abortion advocates had played quite strategically. Ziegler suggested that the Democratic Party had continued to play to the center, nominating relatively neutral and inoffensive justices to the Supreme Court, while the Republican party abandoned notions of neutrality. I found this statement to be, in all honesty, ridiculous. First of all, the Supreme Court does not exist in a vacuum; it has never been truly neutral and has always been subject to influence by various political players. The Democrats choosing to play it safe and centrist just makes them uninspired or unstrategic, not neutral or somehow more fair.
Secondly, it suggests that Democrats are in some way less implicated in the current state of reproductive healthcare than Republicans, as if a lack of any action is not as actively dangerous as strategic action. The Democratic Party choosing to do nothing in response to anti-abortion strategy is arguably just as harmful as the actions of Republican lawmakers restricting access to reproductive health services. Undoubtedly, Republicans are passing incredibly harmful legislation and limiting public health across the country, but what exactly have Democrats been doing for reproductive healthcare in the last fifty years? Since Roe v. Wade, the Democratic Party has mostly just failed to repeal the Hyde Amendment or fund public health initiatives that would increase access to reproductive care. Decades of efforts by mostly women of color to challenge the Hyde Amendment are just recently gaining attention from Congress. Any supposed victory for the reproductive justice movement has community advocates and organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project to thank — certainly not anyone sitting in office on Capitol Hill.
Pregnant people in the South and Midwest have essentially been left in the dust by the anti-abortion admittances of the government, asked to sit back and watch while any semblance of control over their bodies is stripped. Any insistence that there is little to be done feels like a slap in the face to those demanding their fundamental right to healthcare services. Progressives and the Democratic Party are unwilling to ask what it really means to provide equal access to healthcare, especially reproductive healthcare. (Maybe if they did, we would have universal healthcare already.) The Democratic Party points the accusatory fingers of their idle hands towards everyone else, as if the only problem in this country is how much the Republicans hate to “play fair.” Even if by some miracle the Supreme Court fails to overturn Roe v. Wade, I find myself with no confidence that the Democratic Party will do what it takes to create material change. How much progress are we really losing if nothing has changed since Roe v. Wade?