Roe on Death Row: How We Became a Country on the Verge of Outlawing Abortion Again

Earlier this month, 200 members of Congress called on the Supreme Court to “reconsider” Roe v. Wade, the historic 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States. The request came via an amicus curiae brief in support of a Louisiana law that, if upheld in the June v. Gee case currently before the Court, will reduce the number of qualified physicians authorized to perform abortions in the state

The Court is expected to rule on the law in June, marking the first major test of the newly-composed Supreme Court’s constitutional character in regards to reproductive rights.  The news came as an unwelcome, yet unsurprising culmination to a year marred by abortion bans across the country.   

For months now, we have watched with baited breath as abortion ban after abortion ban was enacted, each seemingly more repressive and oppressive than the last. The aim of these laws is two-fold: to continue to systematically eviscerate access to safe, legal abortion by steadily unraveling U.S. reproductive rights jurisprudence; and to serve a conservative-leaning Court the perfect legal challenge to Roe on a constitutional platter. 

This, coupled with the sobering awareness that men like Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh will determine whether to roll back our rights, has many of us struggling to accept a reality we secretly feared, but desperately hoped we would never know.

Roe is on death row.

(John Ramspott / Creative Commons)

Those of us who have never known a pre-Roe America are most fortunate.  Being born after 1973 is a privilege denied to those among us forced to shoulder the terror and tragedy of illegal abortion. But this blessing might also be the root of our undoing. It may be at the heart of our cultural-backslide in reproductive rights. 

“Young females who have always had access to effective contraception, who have never witnessed the tragedies caused by illegal abortions,” bell hooks writes in her book Feminism for Everybody: Passionate Politics, “have no first-hand experience of the powerlessness and vulnerability to exploitation that will always be the outcome if females do not have reproductive rights.”

Perhaps, if we all knew the horrors of life without reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, abortion would not only be a non-issue—we would all take issue with any suggestion of a country without safe, accessible abortions. We have heard too many tales of hospital wards filled with septic female casualties of unsafe, underground and self-induced abortions to discount, but cultural references and allusions are not the same as seeing.  If, like me, you have never known the desperation and despair of existing in a country where our bodies are legally other than our own, then you almost certainly cannot help but wonder what role you played (or did not play) in this losing game.  

I did not do enough to bear witness to these testimonies, to ensure their continued imprint on our cultural psyche, and to preserve a post-Roe America.  I sat back on my heels while a conservative and evangelical-led movement claimed my country and my rights. I talked about my commitment to choice, but I never actually chose to do anything about it.  While others drew district lines and lead anti-choice legislative efforts to take Roe from me, I took Roe for granted. 

Of course, feminist complacence is not solely to blame for the creation of a cultural and political climate that now seeks to claim our constitutional rights. As most of us well know, there are far more sinister culprits who have tirelessly and too often violently, calculated Roe’s impending demise. 

Contrary to what some might think, abortion was not only legal—at least until quickening—but a common practice at America’s inception. The anti-abortion movement in the U.S. began in the mid-1800s and was originally born out of two main belief systems: sexism and racism. The first advocates of illegal abortion in this country were not affiliated with any religion, church or clergy; the medical community launched the first real anti-abortion crusade in America. Their motivation was not purely moral objection, but at least in part, motivated by a desire to keep women from competing in the provision of reproductive care as midwives and obstetricians. Their bodies must have seemed convenient instruments in their own oppression for an emerging, male-dominated, medical profession intent on their continued confinement within the cult of domesticity.

Racism also played a role in the birth of the American anti-abortion movement. According to Robin Stevenson in her 2019 book, My Body, My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights: “Lawmakers wanted to make certain that white people remained a large majority, which meant ensuring that white women had lots of babies. At the same time abortion was being criminalized, racist immigration policies began limiting who could enter the country. The government feared that new immigrants whose birth rates were higher than those of white women, would come to dominate the population.” 

Similar logic might well be compelling the Trump administration and Republicans to crusade for draconian abortion legislation and immigration policies. The best remedy for a country whose racial and ideological landscape is shifting non-white and left respectively is to get and keep those who tend to vote against your interests out through strict, inhumane immigration policies, while multiplying the number of people whose ballots are usually cast to your benefit.  

Some within the same evangelical-movement that wants to abolish abortion also wish to throw contraception in the proverbial “freedom trash can” alongside it. It goes without saying that no abortion and contraception yields more offspring from white, evangelized, Republican-voters, as it does all pregnancies—preferred, planned or not. But their desire for “pill prohibition” also stems from their belief that contraception enables women to bypass their “biblical and biological destinies” and their distaste for sexually-liberated and fulfilled women. Achieving sexual (and economic) liberation in the same way as men is impossible without access to contraception and safe abortions

Access has been by and large denied to the most vulnerable Americans seeking safe, legal abortions in the United States for quite some time now.  The SCOTUS’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey opened the door to years of subsequent abortion access barriers and restrictions, while closing the door on countless individuals seeking to exercise their constitutional and human right. For those who are immigrants, poor and rural, the theoretical right to an abortion is little more than a legal fiction without the means, opportunity, and resources to exercise it.  

Some of these individuals are also the most at risk of experiencing sexual violence.  Together, these facts paint a harsh picture of the physical and reproductive realities already facing so many.  But when one considers these lives in conjunction with the awareness that the first experience with sexual intercourse of one in 16 American women will be rape, the depth of their present suffering becomes crystal clear.  

The human toll of reduced reproductive justice seems of little consequence to those advancing the modern anti-abortion agenda. Instead, they seem more concerned with availing themselves of the one tool in the patriarchal toolkit that never fails to put women “back in their place” whenever we come too close to gender equity for their comfort—our bodies

The reinvigoration of the women’s movement is no doubt an unsettling revolution for those most threatened by the prospect of increased equality between the sexes. With a record number of women in Congress, girls showing increased interest in tech and engineering and college-educated women on track to outnumber men in the workforce, they have cause for concern. And so, blatant disregard for human rights and all, they double down on one of the cheapest and lowest means of culturally-acceptable gender weaponry.                  

Reproductive capacity continues to serve not as a source of individual strength and collective power, but as a personal and political liability. One of our greatest physiological wonders has been the most enduring source of and justification for our exploitation. If anything, our ability to create life would theoretically improve our cultural status, be awe-inspiring, respected and revered—but in reality, it has subjected us to almost perpetual social, political and economic control. Rather than viewing the wonder of our bodies as a basis for affording women the utmost human dignity and decency, they have mainly been viewed as objects to be harnessed, regulated and constricted. Their bodies are presented as evidence of innate weakness and inferiority, rather than strength.  

Perhaps the same men at the highest levels of our government quietly signing our rights away in closed-door, womanless rooms are afraid of the truth. Maybe our bodies scare them because our ability to reproduce is the one thing that is, for all intents and purposes, completely outside of their control. They hate it as much as they need it. They hold on to us with clenched fists because they know that if we fully realized our inherent power, physical and intellectual, patriarchy would lose its grip.

But no matter how hard they try, our bodies will always belong to us. No TRAP law, 24-hour waiting period, parental consent, provider restriction or ban can legislate that biological and transcendental fact away. Sadly, that doesn’t mean they won’t continue to try.                        


Ashley Jordan is a feminist writer, activist and organizer and a licensed attorney and former prosecutor who specialized in domestic violence cases. She has taught Gender and Women’s Studies courses at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois and researched and written extensively on issues of feminism and gender equality. She is the founder of Women Activists, a women’s rights activism group in Wisconsin, and the feminist blog You can find her @feministforward.