Editor’s Note: Claudia Dreifus interviews political and literary figures for the New York Review of Books. She also teaches journalism to graduate students in the sciences at Columbia University. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case involving a 2018 law banning most abortions after 15 weeks. If the justices side with the state of Mississippi, they effectively will be nullifying the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision – significantly limiting women’s reproductive rights.
Though no one can predict how the justices will rule, the fact that they have agreed to hear this case is alarming. It is rare for the high court to reconsider the constitutionality of previously decided law. Even when the Supreme Court has heard challenges to Roe in the past, it has always left the basic constitutionality of abortion rights alone.
And yet, despite their record of affirmation, I am scared. I am of an age where I can remember what life was like for women in the years before Roe.
To be of childbearing age in the 1960s, as my friends and I were, meant knowing that our bodies and our futures didn’t belong to us. Whatever we hoped to do with our lives could be compromised by the capriciousness of nature or by a thoughtless mistake or a contraceptive mishap.
Young people, then and now, are sexual beings. But before Roe, it was females who paid the biggest price for sexual expression. In my circle back then, I knew of women who’d had terrifying back-alley abortions, sometimes without anesthesia. After one friend had an illegal abortion, she developed a pelvic infection and was rendered sterile.
Equally common in that time were young people forced into unwise early marriages as their families attempted to “legitimize” an unplanned pregnancy. Those unions rarely lasted.
In my second year at college, I became pregnant. This was a decade before legalization. At first, I tried to self-abort with various home remedies. None worked. In one attempt – which involved overdosing on a drug rumored to be an abortifacient – I nearly died. I was 19.
What saved me was connecting to an underground network that led to Dr. Robert Spencer. For women in my era, Spencer was a legend. He was a real physician – not all those offering abortions services were – who performed the operation because he believed that women had a right to it. His fee was $100 (about $900 in today’s money).
I can say without hesitation that if not for his care, my life would have gone in an altogether different direction. I wouldn’t today be a writer and a professor.
My students now lead marvelous lives. I am impressed by the choices they make. On average, they marry almost 10 years later than my contemporaries did. They give birth later, too. In my experience, they seem more ready and excited to become parents.
To my knowledge, none have suffered the trauma – frequent enough among my peers – of birthing an out-of-wedlock child and then being pressured to surrender it for adoption.
I teach them science journalism and opinion writing. Every now and then, a student will ask me to propose an idea for an essay or op-ed topic. In a couple of instances I’ve offered, “How about speculating about what your life might be like if Roe v. Wade were repealed?”
It seemed a topic that, given their age, might arouse their interest and provide the basis for a passionate essay.
But I was mistaken. In two instances where I’d suggested this subject, the students looked at me as if I was talking about something as distant from their experience as the War of 1812. One young woman even responded with a declarative, “That’s never going to happen.”
Another offered that it wouldn’t be a problem. She’d “simply travel to a state where it was legal.”
It’s not my role to argue with students about their views. And so, I didn’t tell her that at the time I needed an abortion, that unless one had the money to go abroad, there really weren’t such havens. Though some states permitted terminations if the life of a woman was provably endangered, it was largely hospital committees that ruled on whether the operation was warranted. In practice, the hospitals sought to avoid doing abortions, except in the most drastic situation.
I didn’t tell my students, though perhaps I should have, of one of the most infamous cases of the period where an Arizona television presenter, Sherri Finkbine, had accidentally taken the fetus-deforming drug thalidomide while in the early stages of a pregnancy. When Finkbine sought an abortion at the local hospital, it was denied. She had to fly to Sweden for the operation.
Nor did I mention that the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank based in New York and Washington, DC, estimates that if the court overturns Roe, some 26 states are “likely to quickly ban abortion to the fullest extent possible.” (Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma are among the states that have already enacted anticipatory rules to do exactly that.)
According to Guttmacher, nearly one in four American women will have an abortion before she turns 45. That means, if one adds up the statistics that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Guttmacher Institute have collected, the number of American women who have benefited from abortion’s legalization are in the tens of millions.
And yet, despite these numbers, too many Americans have adopted the complacent attitude of some of my students.
In many ways, my students’ assumptions echo those of large sectors of the public. For them and for others who came of age in a post-Roe America, legal abortion was normal. It was just there. Though they might have carried a placard to pro-choice rallies or contributed a few dollars to Planned Parenthood, they didn’t feel reproductive rights was an issue that required their consistent attention.
On the other side, the Americans who called themselves “pro-life” and took action to curb abortion rights have been far more determined.
From the very moment the Roe decision was announced, they vowed to destroy it. Theirs was a focused strategy where, step by step, they made abortion access cumbersome, and for many, particularly in Bible Belt states, extremely difficult to obtain. Moreover, they linked their goals to the policy platform of the Republican Party and advocated for judicial nominees who they believed to be sympathetic to their cause.
The Supreme Court that will hear this Wednesday’s arguments includes six Republican appointees.
If you’re pro-choice, like me, it’s not a hopeful picture. Of course, we could get a surprise. Justices have been known to make unexpected pivots. For example, Justice David Souter was appointed as a conservative by President George H.W. Bush. Over the years, he moved to the center and eventually voted with the liberals.
For my students’ sake, I’m hoping that we might find ourselves astonished by Chief Justice John Roberts and perhaps even Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It’s sad to think that the bright and talented people in my classroom may yet experience the suffering that haunted so many in my generation.
Whether or not Roe survives, the lesson we must all learn is that preserving our rights – be they in speech, citizenship, privacy or reproduction – requires constant vigilance.