Thinking about Abortion After Watching the Global Gag Rule Being Rescinded

Last summer I was invited to give a talk on the state of abortion in the United States as part of a discussion series hosted by the KU Women’s Center. 

RBG died September 18.

My talk was October 7.

The night RBG died, I was spending time with my family and trying really hard to keep my phone out of my hands.  It sat on the table in front of me–suddenly it began lighting up. Lighting up. Lighting up.  I didn’t let myself pick it until the movie was over. 

And then I picked it up and gasped.

My friend Rebecca called me.  I sat outside on the warm, late-summer night.  We didn’t really say much.  She wisely realized we both needed to hear another person on the other end of the line.

We all knew it was coming.  But we still weren’t ready for it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2016 portrait.jpg

Originally my talk was going to be about how broken our system is if one person could be the thread tethering Roe v. Wade to women across the United States. My goal was for participants to leave understanding that their vote would determine the state of the Supreme Court and abortion rights. 

September 26, the 45th president announced he would nominate Amy Coney Barrett—his third seat on the Supreme Court.

Amy Coney Barrett.jpg

In some ways, I felt my talk had more urgency. And in other ways, it felt like a moot point, a done deal.  But the focus clearly had to shift so I pivoted to talking about how states had been chipping away at Roe protections for decades.

The day of the talk I was a bit frantic. I had just taken on a second “overload,” adding a new class to my roster mid-semester.  I was finishing slides the morning of my talk and, though I knew my stuff, didn’t feel prepared to my normal standards.

As I scanned the tiny Zoom boxes, I saw friends, students, and colleagues—one of some surprise, a professor I knew from faculty listserv posts that he definitely was not there to agree. I got nervous seeing his name in the tiny box the entire talk, just waiting for him to attack my presentation the moment of question and answer.

Let me be clear:  nothing in my brief, amicable experiences with him would ever indicate he would do such a thing.  But I had been down the road of ambush before, and I frankly didn’t have the stomach for it.

I don’t love preaching to the choir, but on that afternoon, I was open to it.

When his question came, I girded my proverbial loins.  But his question was thoughtful, and he was up front with the fact that he didn’t agree.  I thanked him for taking an hour of his time to interrogate another point of view, and I hope we modeled for our students what a dialogue might look like.

A few days later he emailed me to ask more about my ideas on abortion.  I promised a response once we all survived the semester.  At first, I was annoyed to add another thing to my to-do list, but the past months my inner self kept reminding me I had promised, and that articulating more about my argument for abortion rights is a fair ask and would be good for me–and I wanted to keep the conversation going.

So a few months late, I sit here trying to come up with some kind of thoughtful response that says something new about the debate that is sure to be in front of the Supreme Court in the near future.

And I have nothing new to offer. 

However, on this morning of the Global Gag Rule being rescinded, I am reminded of the urgency of what seems to be a theoretical discussion but that actually matters more than perhaps any other decision presidents can make for women of the world.

So some things I believe after decades of studying the issue in a, I hope, thoughtful way:

Abortion is health care, and when women are denied autonomy over their own bodies, they lose their agency—e.g., their ability to assert their own wishes, their ability to earn enough money to feed their family, their ability to perhaps forward and away from trauma. 

Abortion needs to be safe and accessible.  My friend Matt once quipped, “If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at a 7-11.”  That poor women and BIPOC women often have the least access signals the white supremacist nature of the anti-abortion movement.  If we are going to say we are doing anti-racist work, we must tear down the structures that reify racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism—and all other oppressive systems—and anti-abortion movements seem to support those oppressions when their efforts lands on the backs of oppressed women. 

(Hey, that kind of seems like a new thing to offer? I am sure someone smarter than me has already said that out loud, but writing in this moment brought the idea to me….annndddd a quick google search shows me that there is nothing new about that idea even if it is new to my thinking.)

Abortion is singular and unique.  No one can know what happens to lead a woman to seek an abortion.  The story doesn’t matter to anyone but her and perhaps her partner and is no-one-else-in-the-public’s business.  She does not need to explain her need for health care to a judge or a doctor forcing her to watch an ultrasound. 

Abortion is complicated.  The narrative of women just tossing away any sense of morality or ethics just so they can have all the sex they want is a false and dangerous one–but if even that were the common case, that woman still has the right to access a medical procedure.  The idea that women only react rashly and need paternalistic waiting periods to access health care that is already on a timer again reinforces systems of oppression.  But it is also complicated by the fact that there is a zygote. As someone who has been very open about her past struggle to have a child, the argument that I don’t care about a bundle of cells is nonsense.  I know it sounds dismissive to call it that and that this is where anti-abortion folks will shut down to my argument—and, frankly, when I hear that a zygote has personhood rights, I shut down as well, so I am not innocent of such collapse—but removing cells in sacrifice to allow a fully-formed girl or woman to continue her life is a sacrifice I am willing to make.  Full stop.  I know that arguing for the free will of women makes me a monster in the eyes of some.  I know that putting this on my blog can open me up to harassment (see above), but I also want to be honest in how I see the equation working out in the case of abortion.

I know there are passionate counterarguments to everything I have said, and if you are still reading, you probably believe them or at least know them. But I keep my promises and hope that this post offers some clarity for you, dear readers. 

This was recorded with permission from all attendees.

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