Same song, 24th verse...
Today marks the 24thanniversary of my first speech at a pro-choice rally. The event took place on the steps of the Tennessee state capitol on Wednesday, July 5, 1989. I was there representing Vanderbilt Students for Choice, a group that several other graduate students and I founded because we could see the way the winds were blowing.
On July 3, the Supreme Court had handed down the first major assault on the constitutional right to an abortion. That case was Webster v. Reproductive Health Services; it addressed a Missouri statute that barred public facilities from being used to conduct abortions and prohibited public health workers from performing abortions unless the life of the mother was at risk. The statute also defined life as beginning at conception and directed physicians to perform fetal viability tests on women who were 20 or more weeks pregnant and seeking abortions.
The case was decided on a 5-4 vote. In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated bluntly “There is also no reason why the State's compelling interest in protecting potential human life should not extend throughout pregnancy, rather than coming into existence only at the point of viability. Thus, the [Roe v. Wade] trimester framework should be abandoned.”
He was joined in that opinion by current justices Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia, who wrote a separate concurring opinion calling explicitly for the court to overrule Roe. The first woman on the court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, voted with the majority because she said the Missouri statue did not pose an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions.
Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the opinion of the court in Roe v. Wade (which had been decided 7-2 by an all-male court) wrote a blistering dissent in the Webster case:
Today, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and the fundamental constitutional right of women to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, survive, but are not secure. Although the Court extricates itself from this case without making a single, even incremental, change in the law of abortion, the plurality and JUSTICE SCALIA would overrule Roe (the first silently, the other explicitly) and would return to the States virtually unfettered authority to control the quintessentially intimate, personal, and life-directing decision whether to carry a fetus to term. Although today, no less than yesterday, the Constitution and the decisions of this Court prohibit a State from enacting laws that inhibit women from the meaningful exercise of that right, a plurality of this Court implicitly invites every state legislature to enact more and more restrictive abortion regulations in order to provoke more and more test cases, in the hope that, sometime down the line, the Court will return the law of procreative freedom to the severe limitations that generally prevailed in this country before January 22, 1973. Never in my memory has a plurality announced a judgment of this Court that so foments disregard for the law and for our standing decisions.
Nor in my memory has a plurality gone about its business in such a deceptive fashion. At every level of its review, from its effort to read the real meaning out of the Missouri statute to its intended evisceration of precedents and its deafening silence about the constitutional protections that it would jettison, the plurality obscures the portent of its analysis. With feigned restraint, the plurality announces that its analysis leaves Roe "undisturbed," albeit "modif[ied] and narrow[ed]." But this disclaimer is totally meaningless. The plurality opinion is filled with winks, and nods, and knowing glances to those who would do away with Roe explicitly, but turns a stone face to anyone in search of what the plurality conceives as the scope of a woman's right under the Due Process Clause to terminate a pregnancy free from the coercive and brooding influence of the State. The simple truth is that Roe would not survive the plurality's analysis, and that the plurality provides no substitute for Roe's protective umbrella.
I fear for the future. I fear for the liberty and equality of the millions of women who have lived and come of age in the 16 years since Roe was decided. I fear for the integrity of, and public esteem for, this Court.
The following text is taken directly from a typewritten copy of the speech I delivered that year—I found it in a box when I was moving. The only changes I have made to it were to correct a few misspelled words (I was—and remain—a terrible typist...), and I have cut it into smaller, more Internet-friendly paragraphs.
I am saddened by how prescient I was—and by how current the speech feels, even now.
Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I could not celebrate the 4th of July. The words to the Pledge of Allegiance hung in my throat—“with liberty and justice for all” is a phrase which no longer applies to over half of the population of the United States. On Monday, the Supreme Court took the first step toward removing the right of women to control their bodies and their destinies. Under the guise of returning power to the states, five members of the Court voted to restrict our freedom to choose when and if we will become parents.
Where was the “liberty” and the “justice” in such an opinion? Where is the liberty from government intervention in our most private decisions? Where is the justice in a group of rich, white, professional people, either incapable of bearing children, or past childbearing age, telling young women, poor women, and women of color that control over their reproductive systems is something to be haggled about and fought over in state legislatures?
We have a good idea what we can expect from that quarter. The maps showing which states are likely to pass antichoice laws, and which have been published in every newspaper in the country tell us that. The Supreme Court has turned control over our bodies to the same male-dominated legislatures and hospital boards that forced my mother's generation to seek back-alley abortions or to resort to coat hangers, poison, and other measures that make us cringe when we try to imagine them.
You see, my generation doesn't remember those things. Only the sponsors and faculty members of Students for Choice are old enough to remember what those days were like. The students themselves have grown up secure in their right to choose a safe and legal abortion. In a way, the nightmare in which we now find ourselves is the fault of women of my generation. We were complacent with the gains that our mothers and grandmothers had fought for and won with such struggle and sacrifice. We said things like “Nobody has ever discriminated against me," and our parents told us "You can be and do whatever you want to.”
The Great American Myth, and we believed it.
We grew up with our heads filled with dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, fire fighters, and construction workers. We believed that sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation were things of the past. We also grew up believing in our right to control our bodies—to use birth control and to choose a safe and legal abortion if we needed it.
Monday's decision was not the first death knell for those beliefs, and it apparently will not be the last. We bought the American Dream and we have found that we were sold a bill of goods. Those of us who are committed to reproductive rights have been concentrating on the Webster case for so long that there has been little comment on the other cases the Supreme Court decided this term. We have nearly overlooked the Court's broadside attacks on affirmative action, and on our rights to battle discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. The Supreme Court has not limited its attacks on America's women to only one front. They have ensured that every gain made by the women in this country in the last 20 years has been negated.
They have allowed white male fire-fighters in Birmingham, Alabama to sue for alleged "reverse discrimination" that occurred years ago, while telling women at an [AT&T] plant that they should have foreseen—three to five years in advance—that a change in promotion procedures would discriminate against women. Because they did not bring the suit within 300 days, the court ruled that their complaint was not valid. [Note: The firefighter case was Martin v. Wilks. The AT&T case was Lorance v. AT&T Technologies, Inc. Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the court in the latter case.]
The Court has said to employers, "You may not discriminate when you hire, but you can force your female and minority employees to perform degrading tasks and to endure racial and sexist remarks." And finally, the Court has begun the torturous path to overruling Roe. They have hit us on all fronts--our wallets, our dignity, and now our bodies. We are fooling ourselves if we fail to see that all of these things are tied together.
First, they take away our economic power, and then they hit at our right of self-determination. These are not things that should be subject to the whims of legislators—the right to control one's life and to live in dignity are fundamental rights, not privileges to be granted to women by the men who make up our political leadership. If our political leaders had any respect for the ideals on which this country was founded, the right to a safe and legal abortion could never even be an issue. If, however, their goal is to put women back in the spots we occupied 20 and 30 years ago, then the abortion issue is the way for them to achieve their goal. The “Reagan Revolution,” whose aim seems to be to put us back in the kitchens and bedrooms of America, barefoot and pregnant, is succeeding.
And where have our political leaders been during these attacks? Have any of them rushed to propose legislation to remedy the damage to our standing in the workplace and our self-determination? NO!!!! They have been holding all-night sessions to denounce flag-burning!!!—as if a piece of cloth, no matter how important it might be could ever be more important than women's lives. There will be no flags flying over the graves of women who die from back-alley and self-induced abortions, nor will there be any flags flying over the graves of the unwanted children who will fall victims to child abuse. It seems that in this country, the flag flies only over the rich, the white, and the male. The rest of us are left out of its protection.
What can we do? One thing the Court and the Congress have yet to take away from us—though I wonder if it may be next—is our ability to vote. We have seen how successful the Religious Right has been with their “litmus tests” on the abortion issue. Many, including a large number of the students I represent, have dismissed these people as “fanatics” and “nuts,” and we thought we could ignore them because their views were so extreme. We have learned, to our detriment, that we cannot ignore them, but we can appropriate their methods. We can develop our own “litmus tests”—those who don't support us will not only not receive our support, but will face our candidates in elections. We have long lamented the lack of women and minorities in government—it's time for us to put them there. We can no longer hope for a prochoice candidate to show up as an election choice. We—you, me, and the person standing next to you—must be the candidates. We are fighting for our lives now, and we cannot wait for someone else to appear and lead us to the Promised Land. We must be ready to run, to win, and to lead.
The anti-choice activists have adopted the tactics of civil disobedience—it is now time for us to do the same. We must be ready to defy bad laws and to prevent any government from asserting control over our wombs. If our opponents are willing to go to jail to stop women from being free to choose, can we do less?
There can be no more fence-straddling. The lines have been drawn, and they have been drawn in the blood of women—women my age, whose lives and futures depend on what you, as individuals, choose to do in the coming months. If you choose to let others do your fighting for you, or to throw your hands up in despair and frustration, you will have condemned us to failure. The end result will be to put all women back in the semi-slavery they endured before Roe. If we cannot control our bodies, we will never be allowed to take our rightful place in society. And we must guard our economic rights as well—the right to work in the jobs we choose, and to do so in an environment free from fear and humiliation. If you make this your personal fight, we will not—we cannot—go back.
I challenge each and every one of you to make a difference-let your voice be heard. Vote, write letters, make phone calls and run for office—but do something, so that I, and millions of other women like me, will have something to celebrate next 4th of July.
I did not have anything to celebrate by the following 4th of July, and I have had precious little to celebrate since then. Since that rainy, wind-swept day in 1989, literally thousands of anti-choice bills have been introduced and/or passed by male-dominated legislatures.
As a white, upper-middle class woman, my choices remained fairly constant. I knew that, if and when I needed/wanted an abortion, I could get one.
I also knew that so many women—poor women and women of color—did not have my options
This haunts me, even now.
Sometime near the end of 1999, I got pregnant. The pregnancy wasn’t planned, but it wasn’t unwelcome either. I already had one, much-wanted, and planned child. I had been conflicted about whether or not to have a second child—and the positive pregnancy test seemed to have answered the question and ended the need for any more agonizing on my part. I remember the thrill I felt when the EPT showed that second line...
In January 2000, I took a trip to visit family and tell everyone I was pregnant again
And then I started spotting.
The plane ride home was the longest of my life. I drove straight to my OB’s office from the airport, and she was waiting for me when I got there. The ultrasound showed a tiny bean-shape in my uterus. There was no heartbeat. She sent me home to await the inevitable miscarriage.
My pregnancy ended about the time that the vast majority of abortions take place in this country. What poured out of my uterus was a lot of blood and a few thick clots. There was no “tiny human” in my womb. There was blood, and cramps, and sadness—but no “miniature baby.”
I went on to have my second child—with no mental/emotional conflict whatsoever this time. Both of my children were wanted and planned. That was my choice. I want my daughter—and all women in this nation—to have the same choice I did.
On Monday, I will join a group of women who remember what life was like before Roe, and we will make our way to the state capitol to participate in a Moral Monday protest. Last week, the North Carolina General Assembly rammed through sweeping anti-abortion legislation that will severely limit women’s right to choose whether and when to bear children—and they did it without giving the citizens, especially the women, of this state the right to be heard on legislation that affects us in the most intimate way possible.
We will go to make our voices heard.
My 12-year-old daughter will be with me—as eager to go as the women old enough to be her grandmother. My child-bearing days are over—but my daughter has decades ahead of her in which she wants to maintain her ability to control her own destiny. We go to protest for her, and for every other girl and woman who will need or want reproductive freedom in the future.
We go to fight—three generations of women united to assert our rights against a legislature full of mostly privileged, white men who believe that we should turn our bodily autonomy and our ability to consent over to them in the name of their god.
Twenty-four years ago today, I said “Hell, no.” And—in 24 years—I haven’t changed my mind.
Doxy’s note: I am closing comments for this post because this is my statement. I don’t care to argue about this anymore. If you don’t trust women to make the decisions that are best for them and their families, I really don’t give a damn what you have to say. I have been fighting you for most of my adult life, and I will never stop fighting you. I will never grant you the right to control me or any other woman on this planet.