For decades, Americans have pussyfooted around what’s at stake in the abortion debate: women’s status as full citizens, able to represent themselves. But the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization enables frank speech and can transform the “debate” into positive action, starting with the election of a Congress this November that will fulfill the people’s will and codify Roe.
Over the almost five decades since the Roe v. Wade decision, conservatives have contrived a sentimentalized fantasy constituency of the unborn, whom they claim to protect—until they require services (like health care, child care, and clean water). But while fetuses are potential people and potential citizens, they aren’t there yet.
Women, however, are both people and—at least nominally—citizens. The fact that until recently these actual constituents have had no voice in shaping the rules they live under has limited their status, however. To begin to achieve full voice and status, they’ve needed protection from—the unborn.
Only recently, when we’ve been able to control our fertility and time births to when and if we’re ready to support and nurture kids, have women as a group been able to complete our educations, establish at work, and move up into policy-making roles, where we can begin to address the needs of women (51 percent of the population) and their families. On their own, male legislators have not represented their female constituents’ interests. Thus our complete lack of a family-support infrastructure.
Now, 183 years since the vulcanization of rubber, 101 years after suffrage, 62 years since the Pill’s debut, and 49 years after Roe v. Wade, many women have taken leadership roles. We now have our first female VP, and Congress is at last… 27 percent female (vs. 0 percent in 1920, 3 percent in 1972, 6 percent in 1992).
The change was made possible by reliable contraception backed up by safe, legal abortion. Twenty-seven percent is not equity, but that critical mass is finally advancing policies to benefit women and their families, including child care, pay equity, paid leave, and maternal and infant health, violence prevention, and more. Some congresswomen have spoken about their own abortions, making clear that their ability to represent is a direct ripple effect of their access.
The GDP and family incomes have grown enormously since the Pill’s arrival in 1960, in large part because of women’s expanded education and workforce participation, improving quality of life for all. Women’s bigger contributions to family income allow parents to raise their kids in better circumstances. Given our lack of an equitable education and family-support infrastructure, that extra income, in tandem with women’s increased education, has enabled the growth of the skilled workforce employers need, now and in the future.
The ability to delay first births until a woman feels personally and financially ready has worked as a class elevator for many women, and their families. Forcing people to bear children they don’t feel prepared for means that the children that they could have borne later if they were allowed to wait are never welcomed into the economy. Those are the unborn we should be worried about.
The positive changes of the past century are all put at risk by Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs, which seeks to return us to 18th-century America. The slavery-based, female-excluding “democracy” back then was just one step on the road to real democracy. The Constitution provided tools for realizing full equality, which Americans have utilized since, moving the arc of the moral universe toward justice, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described. Opposite to the claims of the “moralists” who seek to ban abortion—first in states, then coast-to-coast—national abortion access is a key part of that moral universe, supporting the equality of all Americans.
Though abortion access is discussed as an individual rights issue, nullifying Roe will have huge negative social and economic impacts on America. People of color will suffer disproportionately, but everyone will lose.
Bottom line: Anti-abortion is pro-poverty (as the decade-long “Turnaway Study” has documented). Lack of access promotes a lower-skilled workforce, not just among those denied abortions who are pushed off education and career paths but among all Americans. In our world of interstate corporations, where employees (and their families) can suddenly be assigned to states they weren’t counting on living in, all American young women will again be unable to plan their paths as reliably as young men. Employers, unable to predict whether female workers will have to step out due to unplanned births, will again invest less in all their raises and promotions—reducing GDP. Women who earn less spend less.
Children and poverty make women vulnerable to domestic violence (many victims stay to avoid homelessness for their kids), and lack of abortion access will multiply all three. The inevitable rise in unsafe abortions (medication abortion will not be accessible for many) will mean more women will die—leaving families bereft. The cut in women’s status nationally will mean fewer women moving into leadership roles, depriving business and society of their skills and insights.
Dobbs sets in motion a decline in women’s citizenship status—their voices unrepresented at the antique table set by five unelected advocates of a patriarchal religion. While only 13 percent of Americans polled support a total abortion ban (down from 20 percent in 2020), women will now pay a fertility tax that men don’t (though men will bear consequences, including a lot less sex, since women without sure recourse will be way less interested).
What will it do to the self-concept of your American daughter to learn that she—or, if you’re not in a trigger-law state currently, her friend in Texas, Mississippi, Florida, or 10 other states—could be forced to bear the child of any man who attacks her? Or the self-concept of your son? What changes when America realizes its national “commitment” to gender fairness is hogwash?
Fortunately, the past 49 years of expanding equity have spawned generations of Americans uninterested in going back. Together with their feminist elders, of all genders, they can make 2022 a transformative election, by fighting loudly and demanding that candidates of all parties address the real consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision. Recognizing that resistance is fertile, they can preserve the more equitable world they’ve grown up in and the even more equitable future that’s so much nearer as a result.
They believe women are full citizens; and when they vote for candidates who support codifying Roe and preserving all women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices, they can make it so.