When I was in my 20s, I had an abortion. Actually, I had more than one. It’s taken me more than a month even to write those sentences — a single, simple truth I had to break into two parts to make palatable. The impending official demise of Roe v. Wade has forced me to look at the depth of my reticence about this. People have lauded me over the years for allegedly brave things I’ve said in columns, for putting myself “out there,” but I’d never shared this. I always told myself it was because abortion wasn’t relevant to racial justice, which is the bulk of what I write about. Yet I’ve written about plenty of personal matters that are ostensibly nonracial — depression, money, crises with my dogs, my unfolding struggle with alopecia. All these things at some point have racial implications, as most things in America do. Those things certainly include abortion rights. But I left it alone.
I’m willing to admit only now, as we stand on the brink of Roe’s total collapse, the two main reasons for my avoidance. One, the stories behind my abortion experience — i.e., bad relationships — were nothing I was burning to tell. Two, and perhaps more important, I was never compelled to write about abortion because, even up through this year, I refused to believe it was in any real danger of going away. It just didn’t compute. In the ’60s and early ’70s, the feminist movement fought hard to secure the constitutional guarantee of abortion rights. After 1973 the notion of professional, middle-class women going back to coat hangers, closeted medical procedures and trips out of the country seemed unthinkable, downright ridiculous. It would be like Black people after the ’60s agreeing to live under explicit Jim Crow laws again.
Admittedly, I thought of abortion rights as being even more ironclad than civil rights because it had been advanced by so many white women, and therefore had to be taken seriously by the political establishment. True, it had taken a very long time to get to Roe v. Wade — too long. But once there, I assumed the fight was done, and could not be undone. In the ’80s and ’90s I was grateful to be a beneficiary of a struggle that may not have been fought with me in mind, but that shaped the trajectory of my life. Exercising such a right felt like democracy at its most functional.
Now, with functional democracy at a nadir, the likely scuttling of Roe v. Wade, though shocking to many, also feels like par for the course. Just one more right of the masses getting picked off state by state while the Supreme Court withdraws from the business of protecting it altogether. This particular picking off is not new. But what’s more remarkable to me is that white women who once saw Roe as core to second-wave feminism seem not to be putting up much of a fight. There has been pushback and protests, of course, every step of the way. But overall it’s been a staving off of disaster, not a proactive campaign to cement and grow Roe’s legacy. And in the last decade the pushback has grown increasingly academic — righteous condemnation and legal analyses on talk shows and opinion forums. What’s been missing, especially as the anti-abortionists have zeroed in their goal of overturning Roe, are visible protests or a larger cultural movement on the scale of #MeToo or Black Lives Matter. Instead, there has been a collective bracing amongst abortion advocates for the inevitable, with lots of sober speculation about how life will be post-Roe.
The implications of Roe’s end are huge, much bigger than I ever wanted to think about. The right to decide whether to have children or not is, if not exactly a civil right, as essential to our daily lives and to a kind of individual agency and equality that I think of as uniquely American. The right to abortion involves us all, including women like me — especially women like me — who are not white and who are well past reproductive age, yet who recognize oppression in all its forms and feel its reach.
Faye Wattleton, past president of Planned Parenthood and the organization’s first Black president, calls the right to abortion not simply a right of all women, or all Black women, or even all Americans, but a human right. “However you frame it, this is about people’s individual right to control their bodies,” she says. “There are no two sides to it. A person has the right or they don’t.”
The fundamental right to abortion should be an absolute, with no gray areas. But it also has subtleties that are rarely discussed. While abortion is often framed by both sides as something a woman does only in physical or emotional crisis — the last, worst option — that is often not true. Abortion is something you do to avoid crisis. (Like being chained for life to an ill-suited partner, struggling with single parenthood, or both.) I know this from experience. It is acting in real time on your own behalf, important for all women but especially for Black women who deal with ongoing crises of all kinds, and who hardly need more. Choosing abortion to ease our lives is the most quotidian aspect of abortion — and the most crucial. Yet in public discussions it’s downplayed, presumably because it makes us seem selfish when there’s this not-so-subtle pressure to appear remorseful, or somehow damaged by the experience.
That pressure feels greater for Black women, who have always been under greater moral scrutiny — and who have much higher rates of abortion, thanks to a whole host of historical disparities. It’s telling that the abortion stories recently shared by several Black congresswomen who are staunch reproductive rights advocates are nothing short of horrific: Cori Bush (D-Mo.) was a 17-year-old rape victim; Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was a 16-year-old in the pre-Roe era whose mother helped her get a back-alley abortion that Lee described as nightmarish. Understandably, none of the women used words like “glad” or “relieved” or “unburdened.” But with my own, trauma-free abortions, I felt all those things.