Reflections From the Passenger Seat in the Wake of Dobbs: ‘We Go Forward, We Go Backward. We Keep Driving’

Protesters take part in the Women’s March and Rally for Abortion Justice in New York City on Oct. 2, 2021. (Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images)

If we packed the night before and got on the road right after school, we’d pass the giant peach around 6 p.m.—three hours down I-85 in Gaffney, S.C. The striking water tower is Gaffney’s landmark, but it was also one of our landmarks. It was a staple of the road trips I would take with my mom—driving to soccer, mapping the Southeast. 

When I first joined the under-4 league at the YMCA, my mom couldn’t have described the offside rule, much less anticipated that one day she would drive me well over an hour each way to practice several times a week. And the idea of driving six, eight, or even 10 hours for one game would have been laughable.

But the years went on, and she did just that. She drove me thousands of miles through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida—giving up weeknights and long weekends to eat Cookout and Panera Bread, sleep in hotels, and watch girls’ youth soccer. She drove me through every stage of my adolescence: grateful and ungrateful, attentive and inattentive, talkative and silent, doing homework, texting boyfriends, and napping with sweat-stained socks on her dash. It was a sacrifice she made selflessly but willingly, recognizing the magnitude of the experience. Soccer was the lens through which I came to know myself, my body, and countless lessons in confidence, humility, resilience and friendship. For almost two decades, the sport was my identity. It was my life then, and my future. So she drove me. 

As I reflect now on our long drives, I am met by the intrusive thought that if it really had been my life and future at stake—highways and hotels under more fearsome circumstances in a different reality that could have been mine—she would have driven me, just as willingly, across those state lines. My own experiences are papered over by those in proximate universes, those of mothers and daughters, driving through the night across the Southeast and across the country, seeking reproductive healthcare, and sanctuary from anti-abortion states which, like mine, have become less and less free.

It was in that passenger seat I knew so well, where I sat nervously at 15, asking my mom about birth control. It was a conversation suffused with awkwardness but, in hindsight, overflowing with luxury. I felt comfortable enough to ask for contraceptives, confident that I could obtain them, and blissfully ignorant of the thought that an unwanted pregnancy could one day kill me. 

Conversations such as this reveal how profoundly my life has been shaped by the law—decades of legal work and court decisions that predate my own existence. I asked the question on the way to practice, to play the sport I love, on a team in a national girls’ league, having been inspired for years by professional women’s soccer players, all made possible by Title IX. The question itself was reasonable only in a world of reproductive rights created by GriswoldRoe and Casey. In that moment, as I turned down the radio with sweaty palms, I was concerned with being late to practice and how my mom would react—not my right to exist in the world free of sex discrimination, or my rights to privacy and equal protection. 

I am concerned with those things now. 

Walking around our neighborhood one day this summer, in the wake of Dobbs, my mom asked my thoughts on the ethics of using technology to evade the law. She seemed surprised by how frankly and quickly I answered that I don’t think disobeying laws is necessarily unethical, because I don’t consider laws to be inherently ethical. Laws are informed by the values and ideals of the people who write, enforce and interpret them.

I think of laws written by humans as I think of humans themselves—flawed, prejudiced, at times motivated to liberate, at others to subjugate. Throughout history (Title IX and Roe are only two of countless examples), the aim of justice has always involved both the actions of those operating outside the law, as well as those acting within it. 

My own life was changed in 1920, 1963, 1964, 1972 and 1973 by the law. Laws formulated before I was ever formed became my own stories and lived experiences. And yet it is clear that the promise of opportunity or equality does not ensure its realization or its continued protection, and that we cannot rely on a linear trajectory towards greater freedom. 

And so we persist in this human project, as well we should, recognizing that the very humanness that makes the law dangerous and our institutions fragile also makes the law so compelling, so wanting and worthy of our care and attention. 

There is no finish line. We go forward, we go backward. We keep driving. 

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Austen Dellinger is a graduate of the University of Chicago where she played soccer and completed a degree in law, letters and society with a minor in human rights. She will enter Harvard Law School in the fall.