We’re All on the Speculum
3 points about Roe, Women & Reproductive Rights
Women make up about 52% of the population. Today, women exceed men in law school, medical school and university enrollment. And feminisms — the body of knowledge and movements aimed to establish social, political and economic equality for women- are inextricably linked to body politics in the United States. Women’s rights are civil rights, but what reproductive rights mean in legal terms changed yesterday with the reversal of Roe v Wade. President Biden warned, “The health and life of women of our nation are now at risk. Make no mistake. This decision is the culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law.”
Today, some women celebrate while others express dismay, outrage and fear that the reversal of Roe v Wade will end reproductive rights, specifically abortion on demand. The ruling throws the decision to the states. Recommendation: Take a deep breath.
- Roe may be gone but abortion will remain, the form dependent on the state. But, like the debate over gay marriage way back in 2012, no matter what a constituency of a state wants, state courts can make determinations that counter popular opinion and referendums. North Carolina is a great example where gay marriage played out in public opinion and the courts in different ways. And, states know reproductive rights are about women’s health. The idea of some Draconian ban on the use of dialysis and curettage is counterintuitive to developments in science, women’s legal rights and policy related to the politics of the body. But, fear among pro-choice advocates is logical in the wake of a pandemic where science and politics created inconsistent public health mandates, laws and responses.
- The Roe reversal, despite the legal shortcomings of the initial decision, has served as precedent for many subsequent rulings many legal scholars argue affirm women’s right to abortion. However, it’s important to contextualize changes in women’s health since the Roe ruling. Today, birth control abounds. Plan B, free contraception/birth control, sex education in public schools from elementary through high school and access to deep fields of information online and via community resources make surgical abortion on demand somewhat of an antiquated tool. A medication abortion, on the other hand, requires two steps and involves two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, taken in two doses up to 10 weeks pregnant. The plethora of options and alternatives to abortion are numerous but too often absent in the public discourse about reproductive rights and choice. To view abortion as birth control, however, demonstrates resource allocation over the last 50 years to women’s reproductive health, education and family planning has failed. Moreover, it speaks to the silence around reproductive responsibility in contrast to the very loud clarion call for reproductive rights/freedom. With rights come responsibilities, and whatever side of the political fence women may fall, it is clear women struggle with the responsibility part. Most significantly, there’s a disproportionate number of abortions among women of color, specifically black women. The abortion rate among black women is three times higher than white women and most common among educated and unmarried women. It’s important to historicize this and contextualize the numbers in relation to the history of eugenics and the responsibility of the government. The absence of public dialogue about this in an era of Black Lives Matter, critical race theory and a reevaluation of race relations in the US is shocking.
- Most importantly, women are not a monolith. Women are only as powerful as the sum of their parts, and many women believe that wearing their body parts on their head is a sign of feminist solidarity. Pussy hats and reductive body politics are as divisive as pro-life, Christian conservatives or anti-trans Rad Fems. Women have to recognize that they are far more powerful as a whole when their hard-earned gains in academia, health, employment and the law are being co-opted. It is ironic women’s outrage over Roe but complete silence on the destruction of Title IX, one of the most important federal laws passed to protect women. But, in an age where the definition of woman exists outside of biology, it’s critical to recognize that the protections guaranteed women via their biological sex- not their gender- are being co-opted. Where is the outrage? Why are women surprised over the reversal of Roe when women have allowed all of the gains made on behalf of their sex, especially the legal gains, to be co-opted by gender politics? Over a dozen national women’s sports titles have gone to MTF trans athletes this past year. That alone should create concern among those who really advocate for women’s equality and protection under the law. Allowing gender to usurp biological sex in the revision of Title IX is a terrifying slippery slope for women. Why not pass a separate federal civil rights law instead of taking away what women have fought tirelessly to achieve? The silence on the proposed Title IX revisions speaks volumes about the fissure lines in women’s movement culture, personal politics and the definition of sex. As historian Joan Hoff brilliantly warned, gender might actually be a useful category of paralysis for women (see the Scott-Hoff debate).
Language is political, and words matter, especially for women and sex in relation to the law.