I have to appreciate Dobbs for bringing greater awareness to the connection between abortion and pregnancy, and to the loss of rights beyond the single right to abortion.
On what would have been Roe v. Wade’s 51st anniversary, I am compelled to acknowledge that the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs has done a much better job than I ever did to raise public consciousness about the connections between abortion, pregnancy and pregnancy loss. For more than 30 years, I have tried to communicate the fact that abortion and pregnancy are not separate issues and that all people with the capacity for pregnancy—not just those seeking to end a pregnancy—would be harmed by the loss of Roe.
Honestly, I have to admit that the five religiously and politically motivated Supreme Court justices who ruled in Dobbs to overturn Roe are succeeding in ways that I never have.
Before Dobbs, I found that abortion, pregnancy and pregnancy loss were commonly regarded as distinct issues. Case in point: I was preparing to give a lecture at a prestigious school of public health. One of my distinguished faculty hosts knew me from my early days defending Roe at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. Aware that I had gone on to found National Advocates for Pregnant Women (now called Pregnancy Justice), she asked, “What made you stop working on abortion and start working on pregnancy?”
Obviously no one would need an abortion without having first become pregnant. Yet people’s tendency to think in simple binaries makes it surprisingly common for people to disassociate ending a pregnancy from ever having been pregnant. This in part explains why the majority in Dobbs could so easily pretend that they were “only” ruling on “abortion rights” rather than pregnancy and the lives of the half of all humans who have the capacity for pregnancy.
Dobbs however is doing a wonderful job helping people see the connections. When, post-Dobbs, the state of Texas denied Kate Cox the right to have an abortion, people were given a front row seat to what she was facing: a pregnancy with a fetus that had no chance of survival and the fact that continuing the pregnancy could ruin her chances of future pregnancies.
Dobbs has also been effective in demonstrating the ways in which anti-abortion laws will hurt all pregnant people, not only those who seek abortions. Skilled medical professionals are fleeing states where they face arrest and financial ruin for providing the appropriate standard of medical care to their pregnant patients. The women left behind now reside in maternity-care deserts unable to get any of the care they may need—not just abortion care.
Before the Dobbs decision, few people took seriously the possibility that women would be arrested for having abortions if Roe were overturned, despite Pregnancy Justice’s peer-reviewed study and latest report The Rise of Pregnancy Criminalization, documenting thousands of arrests based on pregnancy and all of its possible outcomes.
Courtesy of Dobbs, legislators in South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Oklahoma are now proudly and loudly proposing bills to make their homicide laws applicable to women who have abortions. And since the decision in Dobbs a Nebraska teenager who had a medicinal abortion (with pills) was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
People were given a front row seat to what [Kate Cox] was facing: a pregnancy with a fetus that had no chance of survival and the fact that continuing the pregnancy could ruin her chances of future pregnancies.
It is also thanks to Dobbs that miscarriages and stillbirths, common outcomes of pregnancy, are beginning to be integrated into the public consciousness of pregnancy. In 2023 Brittany Watts repeatedly sought help when she began experiencing a stillbirth. Fearful of penalties for ending the pregnancy after Dobbs, doctors refused to treat Watts and instead sent her home. There she experienced the inevitable pregnancy loss giving birth to a stillborn over the closest thing in her home to a birthing chair, a toilet. She was arrested and charged with the crime of abuse of a corpse. Because of Dobbs, her case received national coverage that highlighted the link between abortion and pregnancy loss as well as criminalization and cruelty.
Before Dobbs, the argument that losing Roe would lead to violations of a pregnant women’s right to interstate travel was regarded as hyperbolic. In 2013, a woman who was eight months pregnant traveled from California to New York not to get an abortion but to go to college. When she gave birth in New York, she went to the local family court to establish custody with the father who lived in California. The father argued that by traveling to New York while pregnant, the mother had kidnapped their unborn child and she should therefore be denied access to the New York court system. An appeal was required to reverse the initial court’s decision that agreed with the father and found that crossing state lines while pregnant was an “appropriation of the child while in utero” that was “irresponsible” and “reprehensible.”
After Dobbs, penalties for traveling while pregnant seem much less like an anomaly. In 2023, Idaho passed a law penalizing travel for abortions, and Texas municipalities have passed ordinances designed to block people seeking out-of-state abortions from traveling on their streets. The Dobbs decision also motivated legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives to introduce the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act to prohibit interference with a person’s ability to access out-of-state abortion services.
So, reluctantly, I have to appreciate Dobbs for bringing greater awareness to the connection between abortion and pregnancy and to the loss of rights beyond the single right to abortion.
The legislation proposed by Congress, however, indicates how far we still need to go: It limits its scope to travel for “abortion.” But the people who get pregnant must have full rights to travel—whether they are doing so for abortion, or to obtain a college education, or anything else free and equal citizens might want to do.
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