Three days ago the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, a decision made in 1973–just one year after I was born–that essentially made abortion a legal right for American women.
This is devastating news. It isn’t hyperbole to borrow from FDR’s statement about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed: This is a day that will live in infamy.
Make no mistake about the fallout from this decision. Women and girls will die due to lack of access to full reproductive health care. Women will lose their livelihoods since so many will no longer be able to make a fair choice between holding down a job and bearing a child–with, of course, women in lower-paying jobs and jobs without health insurance getting boxed into a corner the most. Many girls will lose their education, no longer able to make a fair choice between continuing their schooling and bearing a child they are not prepared to take care of, being so young themselves. The circumstances that led to their pregnancies, whether from a loving relationship or from rape or incest, will be moot. Some women and girls impregnated through rape may even be sued by their rapists for custody of a child not even born. It’s already happening. Women will be imprisoned for trying to exercise bodily autonomy, as will doctors in many states for trying to help women and girls, for essentially taking their medical vocation seriously and treating their female patients as equal, sentient human beings capable of making decisions about their own life and health. Women’s clinics in states that still allow abortion will continue to be targeted for violence, until the entire country is “pro-life.”
I know nobody’s waiting to hear my take on this. I’m an ordinary American woman with a pretty average (maybe even below average) level of individual power. I’m not rich, I’m not famous, I’m not connected. I’m also middle-aged, just a few months short of 50, and post-menopausal as of the fall of 2019, with no daughters (or kids at all) of my own. Which means that today’s Supreme Court decision doesn’t affect me in the same way it would have just 10 years ago. I’m not married and never have been. Socially, I’m a lifelong loner. I’ve never been pregnant. I have cats. I’m the kind of invisible woman our country and culture ignore except to ridicule once in a while.
I’m a survivor too, but let’s face it–even in this era of #MeToo, with a current president in charge who co-authored the Violence Against Women Act (I will always respect Biden for this), our culture still doesn’t give a shit about survivors. If it did, this Supreme Court decision wouldn’t have happened. If it did, two men credibly accused of sexually assaulting/harassing women wouldn’t be on this Supreme Court. If it did, the corrupt, failed former game show host, and verified woman abuser who appointed one of those justices would’ve gone to jail where he belongs instead of the White House.
But I’m a woman all the same, and an American citizen, not to mention a human being–which should be self-evident with the phrase “I’m a woman,” but going by June 24, 2022’s decision, clearly some people still don’t think “woman” equals “human.” So of course, today’s decision does still affect me. It affects every American, everyone living in this country–red state or blue, citizen or immigrant, documented or undocumented, male or female, young or old.
On the day of the decision, I went to a march in downtown Chicago where the governor of Illinois spoke, promising to keep abortion fully legal in Illinois and firm up the state’s abortion and health care laws even more so no Republicans can dismantle them. I wasn’t there for his speech. I arrived just before the marching from Federal Plaza around the Loop began. I don’t know what the official count is, but from my view on the ground and the news footage from all the helicopters whirling overhead, it may have been in the thousands. (It wasn’t near the size of the Women’s March in 2017, no, but then again, that was planned farther ahead and held on a weekend day, rather than a weeknight on a few hours’ notice.)
I was at the march alone, but surrounded by people of all genders, races, and ages as we marched slowly through the Loop. There was everyone from moms marching with their grade school age daughters to older women with gray hair and thick waists. The majority of the people around me though were younger, looking to be in their late teens to 20s. So part of me felt a bit out of place. I wondered if this was my march to participate in, even being a woman. Maybe this is a young generation’s fight, I thought. I wondered if I should just stand off to the sidelines and cheer them on, as I saw others doing.
As we marched along chanting “My body, my choice” (the female marchers) / “Their body, their choice” (the male marchers), I remember one very young woman behind me shouting her part to the point her voice was straining. She was the loudest person I heard at the march, chanting like her life depended on it. Because it does. At one point she passed me up or I fell back, and when I saw her it surprised me just how small and slight she was, given the volume and strength of her voice. I’d put her on the Supreme Court in a minute.
It also struck me then how fortunate I had been, despite never having had to deal with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy (though believe me, as a survivor, the risk was there). I’d been born a year before Roe v Wade and made it all the way to menopause with full reproductive rights. These girls and women around me had suddenly been stripped of this freedom, no matter which state they live in. Fifty years of precedent, just gone. Because of the unfair and hateful biases of six justices, a ruling that can’t be easily changed back (we’re stuck with them for the long haul, like a varicose vein), the girls and young women marching around me may have decades ahead of them of fear and worry and fighting for a right that should be self-evident, like our Constitution says, a right that is unalienable, that comes with simply being human. The thought of it overwhelmed me to the point of near-tears.
But it wasn’t all despair. I was just as much moved and humbled.
Roe v Wade was not an overnight success story, to put it kind of cheesily. It came through the backbreaking justice efforts of countless women born before me. Women of the Baby Boom, Silent, and Greatest generations, and the generations before them. Many of those women are long gone now. Even those who didn’t live to see Roe v Wade back in ’73 still left this world a better place. They left it as heroines. What a trampling on their graves and their legacies this evil turn of events is.
Meanwhile, many of those heroic women are certainly still alive. I saw them in downtown Chicago on June 24. The women with the gray hair and thick middles, marching too or raising fists from the sidewalk. Women who can’t get pregnant anymore may seem out of danger from the cruelty of this decision–but for subverting their freedom and that of their daughters, granddaughters, younger sisters, and younger female neighbors, for wasting all their past work, this injustice delivered a slap across the face to them too.
(Necessary not-digression: No matter how anti-child the pro-life movement may like to paint feminists and abortion rights activists, many of these women were/are mothers and grandmothers. I see these women–and it’s important to see them, to not erase them or brush them aside but make them visible–and I’m reminded of those elderly ladies, 100+ years old, born before any woman had suffrage in the U.S., who came out hell or high water to vote for Hillary Clinton, who had actually lived long enough to see a woman become president. And then…what happened? Their tenacity, grit, and pride all trampled on by the corrupt cronyism of former frat boy jerks like Cheeto and Co., Tucker Carlson, and now, Brett Kavanaugh with his creepy high school calendars tracking beer bong parties like they were as integral to his life as, say, tracking a period is to the girls he bullied.)
(Hillary still won btw. And Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill? They told the truth.)
How hateful it is to treat the humanity and justice work of all these women, younger and elder alike, like a leaf that can be just flipped over recklessly by six supreme fools. What an anti-life decision. Because there is nothing pro-life about anti-abortion laws. It is all misogyny. All cruelty, control, and power grabs.
So how do I know this? How do I know how bad this is and how bad it’s going to get? I know because I’ve seen it elsewhere. For a time, when I was much younger, and at the age most affected by anti-abortion laws, I lived in a country with such draconian systems.
I went to Ireland to work and live in 1995, when I was 22. At the time, not only was abortion still illegal in the country, but also divorce and same-sex marriage. Contraception had only been legalized a few years prior. Yet birth control and condoms were still hard to get outside the cities, and many of these social issues were still not discussed openly. Mid-90s Ireland was a country still controlled by the Catholic Church–its schools and education system, its hospitals and health care system, its government. The seeds of dismantling it were just being planted at the time, mainly through the testimonies of a few brave church abuse survivors, who’d be joined by hundreds of others in the decades to come.
But what did this church and state collusion mean for Irishwomen? It meant Irishwomen trapped in abusive marriages could not legally escape their husbands. It meant teenage girls and young women hid their pregnancies until the birth of their child. It meant many of them still had their babies taken from them, adopted out from church-run Mother and Baby Homes illegally for cash. It meant Mother and Baby Homes unceremoniously dumping the remains of hundreds of dead babies and children they were unequipped to care for, who had become sick in their poorly regulated facilities. It meant birth records falsified by nuns, and church and state archives kept closed (as they still are) to adopted persons and their birth mothers alike. It meant one teen girl dying alone in a field in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary after she gave stillbirth to a baby whose father she never named. It meant another teen girl being apprehended with her parents in England and forced to return to Ireland, and then detained, for trying to obtain an abortion after being raped by a relative. It meant dozens of women a day travelling across the Irish Sea to the U.K. to obtain an abortion (or even just birth control). It meant girls and women, especially poor and working-class girls, rape victims, girls deemed too pretty or promiscuous or just plain spirited, incarcerated in Mother and Baby Homes or Magdalene laundries, institutions run by nuns where “fallen women” were sentenced to work out their “crimes” by laboring unpaid doing the congregation’s and community’s laundry. In the mid-90s, the last of these hellhole laundries were only finally closing–though many of the older women incarcerated in them were simply transferred to church-run nursing homes rather than allowed to finally live a free and independent life. All in all, what happened was women died. Children died. Children were abused. Mothers and babies were separated from each other. Women and girls were imprisoned and enslaved, no exaggeration, by the church and state, working together in infamy.
In recent years, many of these horrific laws and systems have been subverted, beginning with divorce in 1996 and leading up to abortion as late as 2018. Not even five years ago. The damage caused by this deeply misogynistic and abuse-riddled church-and-state system is hardly over. Survivors of clerical abuse, of the Mother and Baby Home system, of Magdalene laundry institutions, including adoptees to families in the U.S., are still fighting for their rights to compensation and redress and to their own identities through access to birth, church, and state records that remain locked away from public view. Even just six years before abortion was legalized in Ireland, a young woman died as a result of not being allowed to terminate a very much wanted but unviable pregnancy.
Back in the 90s, I was as aware of these issues in Ireland as I was oblivious to them. Ireland was (and is) a beautiful place with a rich culture and many generous-hearted people. That’s what I chose to focus on. But I saw news headlines, heard stories, noticed the wall-to-wall religious iconography in so many homes and even on the street in the heart of bigger cities like Dublin.
And I was a young woman myself. A very inexperienced and naive young woman, but a foreign one on her own, with no local family to offer me a social buffer from gossip or judgment. It was just assumed by more than one man I encountered that I was “loose” and worldly. That if I tried to make male friends or even talk to a man of nearly any age for even the most mundane few seconds of conversation that I was “chasing him” and desperate. Sometimes men would harass me or follow me home or say crude things to me, and when I tried to tell someone, people would joke about it or act unsympathetic. Like I deserved it…for what? Like I was a punchline. I was all at once too nice, too naive, too forward, too bold, too aggressive, too shy, too virginal, too teasing, too friendly, too trusting, too stuck-up, too aloof, too this, too that. Never just a person. Never just a potential friend. It was a confusing time in a culture controlled by a church viciously hypocritical towards and deeply confused about women.
I told myself I was lucky though. I was only passing through. I could–and did–always go home to a country that offered more rights for women, a country with separation of church and state declared right in its Constitution. In reality, I took the reproductive rights in the U.S. for granted, and as a still practicing Catholic at the time, sometimes I even questioned their rightness, though never to the extent of voting against them. Yes, you can be Catholic and support women’s right to choose—not to mention a Constitution that does what it claims to do by refusing to preference one religion’s belief above others.
Maybe I sound smug to compare myself to the women I met and knew in Ireland back then and call myself lucky. For one, there has always been a huge disparity in the U.S. between how rights are doled out to some women than others, based on race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, language, geography, religion, ability, education level, and citizenship. The rights I was so smugly proud of in the U.S. privileged some women (i.e., white chicks) over others, founded as they were on oppression and hypocrisy.
They were also already well under attack.
The first time I went to Ireland, a year before I worked there, was in 1994. I was 21. While there I met three other American women, a mother and her adult daughters in their late 20s and early 30s. (Funny how they seemed so much older to me then.) I distinctly remember waiting with them at a bus stop (in Waterford, I think) while the younger daughter read through a copy of USA Today she had gotten her hands on somewhere. I remember her suddenly shaking her head and making a disapproving noise, reading out loud about how “another doctor” was shot to death by an anti-abortion zealot. In Florida, she said.
Rewind another ten years or so and I’m with my parents and one of my sisters in Florida for a vacation. I’m about 12 or 13. We’re in the state over spring break to visit Disney World (my one and only time, and I’m admittedly a bit old to enjoy it), Epcot, Daytona Beach, and my mom’s close friend Joyce, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. Joyce takes us around town, including to her “clinic” for a tour. When we’re inside, I note all the classic posters showing images like a man with a baby bump and messages saying, “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” and somehow I put it together that this is an abortion or birth control clinic or something. But I don’t really know yet what that means. Apart from the vintage posters and the picture of Gloria Steinem that Joyce keeps on her office wall, the most memorable part about our little tour is Joyce’s story of a protestor who showed up one day claiming to have a bomb with him (of course it was a “him”). Joyce tells us he waited quietly for the police to come and arrest him, and she points to the chair where he sat waiting. Fortunately, he didn’t hurt anyone that day, but Joyce still needed to start wearing a bulletproof vest to work.
Back home in Illinois, I make my Catholic confirmation a few weeks later, but I don’t think it occurs to me to worry whether visiting an abortion clinic makes me a sinner or anything. It’s not until another year or two later when some anti-abortion people show up on my high school campus and hand out graphic leaflets to us girls walking on the lawn and minding our own business (I remember a teacher or someone coming out and chasing them off) that I start to worry and feel confused.
But in my sociology course, I have a teacher who rails at us about knowing our rights and tells us rape is never the victim’s fault and how the “morning after pill” works and how one of her closest friends died of AIDS, and she assigns us homework like going to a store to locate and price out the condoms and OTC birth control or developing a catchy but educational advertising strategy for a form of contraception and then presenting it to the class. (My group came up with a Rockettes idea for a month’s worth of birth control pills, standing in a kickline complete with top hats and legs.) She seems kind of extreme but at least she’s never boring. In hindsight I often wonder how many of her students’ lives she saved, how many of us she kept from a situation that would’ve robbed of us our youth and health. And she did it not through prohibition or restriction or guilt and shame, but through honesty and education.
Joyce passed away several years ago from cancer, and my sociology teacher has long since retired. Is there an America for women like them anymore? Could my former teacher be allowed to teach the way she did in a school today, or even just a few years ago, as anti-choice and anti-woman laws straight out of mandated transvaginal ultrasound hell ramped up.
And now here we are, regressed to the barbarities of the past.
It startles me and frightens me to think where we are and where we’re headed. I think of the place Ireland used to be for women. I’m happy for the freedom and justice women in Ireland have won (though there is still so much to be done for survivors there, and note, we’re only talking the Republic of Ireland here—many restrictions remain in place in the North). But I’m horrified for what women here have just lost and what’s still to come from this court. Ireland’s grim past is what the likes of Amy Coney Barrett and Clarence Thomas want for America’s future.
If there’s any silver lining, it’s that strong voice of that young woman marching behind me on Friday, the sister and granddaughter of those elderly women who marched in their own day.
Back in 2018, when Ireland was gearing up for the popular referendum that would finally result in the country’s legalization of abortion, Irish citizens living around the world planned trips back to Ireland just to vote. (Absentee or mail-in voting is not allowed in Ireland.) For Irishwomen under age 50, this would be the first time they could vote in a law affecting their own bodily autonomy, as the last such referendum had occurred in 1983. Like those old women intent on voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, many Irish emigrants moved hell or high water to make it back to Ireland and cast their vote. Literally, just to cast a vote. Those who couldn’t make it back helped fund flights back for others, sent messages of support, and organized walks and fundraisers where they lived abroad.
In Chicago, a small group of young Irish people were among those who held a walk to show their support for the Yes vote back home. They were even kind enough to allow Americans to walk in solidarity too, which about four or five of us did. We walked along Lake Michigan all the way from Montrose Harbor to a pub in Lincoln Park (you knew it had to end in a pub). The news that came a few days later from Ireland was an amazing testament to the power of the people and proof that even the darkest days can come to an end.
Not even five years on, dark days have come for American women. They can’t last, or America won’t last. There is nothing American about taking rights away from half the population. Six Supreme Court justices have earned themselves nothing but infamy. (That includes you, Miss Stepford Wannabe, Illegitimately Appointed, Can’t Even Name The Five Basic Rights In The First Amendment Amy Coney B.)
But if it can change one way, it can change another. So godspeed the reproductive rights movement in the USA.
If you want to learn more about what still needs to be done in Ireland and the history of church-state oppression against women and ongoing justice work there, these are survivor-led organizations that you should check out and support:
Justice for Magdalenes Research