A Forum on “Dobbs”: “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”

A Forum on “Dobbs”: “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”

A Forum on Dobbs: “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”

One year after the overturning of Roe, contributors in the Nation-verse have much to say about its impact.


On June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court turned one of the most intimate choices a person can make into a decision that will be imposed on millions of people by politicians. In some ways, the Dobbs ruling marked the culmination of a multi-decade campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade, but in other ways, it was just one more battle in a larger war, one that aims to take decisions about our bodies and our lives out of our hands. As The Nation looks back on the first year of the post-Roe era, we’ve asked our contributors and correspondents to reflect on the impact of Dobbs. Read on for their responses.

Elie Mystal, Nation justice correspondent: In most disaster movies, there is a scientist or a professor or a random bearded woodsman who tries to warn people about the impending doom. They are not the hero or heroine—the hero is the one who listens to the doomsday character, the way Roy Scheider listens to Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws. But the wider community doesn’t listen to the warnings until it’s too late. The disaster happens, people die, and then, all of a sudden, the survivors want to become educated about the factors that led to the disaster in the first place. Of course, the scientist-person usually dies, or, if they survive, they spend the rest of the movie explaining how to reverse the disaster, at great cost and risk to the heroes, instead of doing the things that would have prevented the tragedy in the first place.

That’s what it’s been like observing the Supreme Court since the Dobbs decision. People like me, who cover the court, and reproductive rights advocates, had been screaming for years about the conservative majority’s intent to revoke abortion rights, but not enough people listened: not in 2014, when voters handed the Senate to the GOP; not in 2016, when Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat from Barack Obama; and not later that year, when we begged people to vote for president as if abortion rights were on the line, because they were.

Now that conservatives have put blood in the water, everybody is interested in the sharks on the Supreme Court, who swim around eating people’s rights. But to undo what the court has done and make the world safe for women and pregnant people, we’re gonna need a bigger boat. And by boat, I mean court.

Joan Walsh, Nation national affairs correspondent: Call it the Dobbs paradox. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that there is no constitutional right to abortion, the number of Americans supporting abortion rights has grown. Gallup has been polling attitudes about abortion annually since 1975, and its most recent survey found support for choice at an all-time high: 69 percent say abortion should be legal at least in the first trimester. Only 13 percent think it should be illegal in all situations, down from 21 percent just four years ago. The so-called “Dobbs effect” buoyed Democrats in the 2022 midterms and delivered an astonishing Wisconsin Supreme Court victory in April 2023. That’s the good news.

But there’s another Dobbs effect: A dramatic decline in the number of abortions performed in states that banned or sharply restricted the practice after the Supreme Court’s decision, according to numbers compiled by the family-planning group #WeCount and published in FiveThirtyEight in mid-June. In Texas, Georgia and Ohio, which imposed six-week bans, the number of abortions dropped between 50 and 60 percent, comparing the two months before the bans to the two months after. The number of abortions performed in states with more liberal laws also climbed, but not enough to make up the difference: Overall, FiveThirtyEight estimates there were about 24,000 fewer abortions between July 2022 and March 2023, compared to a pre-Dobbs baseline.

Imagine those 24,000 stories. We don’t know how they ended: A healthy baby? Or not? A parent who persevered and is now happy to have a child, even if it wasn’t a choice? Or someone who had to put college or a career on hold and now faces dramatically diminished life options? Numbers can’t tell those stories. We just know that in a country where reproductive choice was a right for half a century, tens of thousands of people were denied that choice in the last year. The political Dobbs effect may eventually win back that right, but the practical Dobbs effect will make an unfathomable number of parents and children suffer in the meantime.

Bryce Covert, Nation contributing writer: As of December, about half of the 66,510 people who couldn’t get an abortion in their home states since Dobbs seemingly didn’t travel elsewhere to get one, according to #WeCount’s data. That number includes Lationna Halbert, a Mississippi resident I spent time with for In These Times who realized she was pregnant weeks after the Dobbs decision allowed her state to ban abortion. She wanted to have a better job, a better house, and get married before having a second child, but she couldn’t afford to travel for an abortion. She was, she told me, “stuck.” She had her baby in January.

We can’t know exactly how many others have faced the same situation, but we do know that those who can’t get an abortion face a remarkably high risk of impoverishment. Research shows that women who are denied abortions are four times more likely to be living in poverty, three times as likely to be unemployed, and at far higher risk of dropping out of school, ending up in debt, and failing to achieve their life’s dreams compared with those who succeed in obtaining the procedure. Lationna has already forgone income on unpaid leave and put her dream of attending cosmetology school and owning her own salon on indefinite hold. The economic consequences of denying people control over their own bodies are only just starting to reverberate. Eventually, they will leave thousands upon thousands of Americans living in privation and the rest of us in an economy sapped of its full vibrancy and potential.

Renee Bracey Sherman, writer and abortion access activist: Everything you’ve been told about abortion is a lie. It’s not a politically divisive issue. They were never going to leave it to the states. It’s not unsafe. We don’t regret having them. But the lie too many well-meaning people fell for before Dobbs was: “People who have abortions won’t be arrested. Only the doctors will face felonies”—as if that were somehow better. Yet it seems as if every month there’s a new article about someone who self-managed their abortion—or helped another person who did—getting put in handcuffs. This isn’t new. While abortion was legal between 2000 and 2020, If/When/How reported 61 cases in which people were criminalized for self-managed abortion, and more than a thousand people were arrested for the outcomes of their pregnancies in the Roe era. Now that we have patchy legalization, police and prosecutors are empowered to jail anyone suspected of having an abortion on their own, including in “blue states.” Pro-choice politicians are often in lockstep with anti-abortion colleagues when it comes to funding the police. None of this should surprise you; we live in a nation that solves its broken safety net issues with policing and mass incarceration. To fix this, we must start with the truth: Our nation loves policing more than it does ensuring the safety and care of pregnant people. Protecting abortion access means calling for the abolishment of the police and all laws that criminalize us for the outcomes of our pregnancies. Until we have police-free communities, we will never have reproductive freedom for all, and abortion will never truly be safe and legal. If anyone tells you differently, they’re lying.

Jeet Heer, Nation national affairs correspondent: The Dobbs decision was an attack not just on a fundamental freedom; it was also built on the core lie that overturning Roe would mean restoring the issue to the voters. It’s a bit rich for Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion and who has consistently supported the stripping away of voting rights, to pretend to be a defender of the “democratic process.” A further irony is that three of the five justices who voted for Dobbs were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and was confirmed by US senators who represent a smaller population of the country than the senators who voted against their confirmation. But the fraudulence of Alito’s claim has become more apparent in the aftermath of Dobbs, as the anti-choice movement has made clear it will use any means, fair or foul, to strip away reproductive freedom even in the face of strong popular majorities that want a restoration of the constitutional right to abortion. The anti-choice position has failed again and again to win the ballot box, so we are now witnessing an intensification of GOP authoritarianism, with Republican leaders moving to restrict ballot initiatives (because pro-choice referendums usually win).

Justice Alito promised that getting rid of Roe would lead to a flourishing of democracy. In fact the opposite has happened: Empowered by the end of Roe, social conservatives are now pushing for the restriction of democracy so they can maintain and extend their victory.

John Nichols, Nation national affairs correspondent: Judicial observers tend to be uncomfortable with suggestions that the US Supreme Court decides elections. But it does. In 2000, the court effectively delivered control of the White House to George W. Bush. And in 2022, with its decision to overturn abortion rights protections, the court very probably decided the 2024 presidential election that’s expected to pit Democratic incumbent Joe Biden against an anti-abortion Republican. It doesn’t matter whether Republicans pick Donald Trump or one of his rivals. Democrats will have an advantage they lacked before the Dobbs decision. It’s not just that women in historically Republican suburbs have begun trending toward pro-choice Democrats. It’s that Dobbs has mobilized liberally inclined young voters to turn out even in obscure elections—like the April contest that gave progressives control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Polling suggests these voters will give a big boost to Democrats in the states that decide the presidential race. How big? Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler says, “I think the moment when Republicans in the presidential primary debate are asked whether they’ll support a national abortion ban and they raise their hands is the moment that they will lose the next presidential election.” He’s right.

Katha Pollitt, Nation columnist: For years, reporting on abortion went like this: The country is evenly divided between people opposed to abortion rights and people supporting abortion rights. Journalists covered the issue as they covered politics, or law, or religion—but definitely not as they covered health care. Few stories included the voices of abortion providers, or of women who had abortions. Mainstream media coverage rarely if ever gave the impression that abortion was ever necessary, even to save a patient’s life, or that it was connected with urgent realities rather than opinion.

That’s changing. Dobbs has forced the media to reckon with the fact that in states where abortion is banned or greatly restricted, women have been forced to give birth to babies doomed to die within hours, and pregnant patients have had to come close to death before doctors felt legally safe enough to treat them. We are hearing about the many ways that abortion care is connected to the medical system—doctors are leaving states where abortion is now illegal, medical students don’t want to study there, and maternity units are closing. We are hearing, too, about the girls and women forced into motherhood, their lost hopes, and precarious lives. Abortion is not about “opinion.” It’s about real life. Finally, the media is taking notice.

Mary Tuma, Texas-based freelance journalist: When the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court allowed a draconian and unprecedented near-total ban to take effect in Texas nearly two years ago, it felt as though the writing was on the wall for the future of abortion nationally. Indeed, 10 months later the high court reaffirmed what we here in Texas painfully anticipated—and had already lived through—by eviscerating abortion rights.

After Dobbs, while blue states took the opportunity to strengthen abortion access, Republican-led states—already historically home to the steepest reproductive health barriers—doubled down on harsh restrictions, leaving a large swath of the South without care. The impact of Dobbs has been nothing short of devastating, brutal, and nightmarish, and the largely irreparable damage—disproportionately impacting low-income people and people of color—will be felt for years to come.

At the same time, Dobbs has catalyzed a wave of resistance, especially at the local level, from emboldened grassroots activist networks, to dogged legal challenges, to citizen-led ballot measures rejecting abortion limits. The rollback of Roe has also helped accelerate the push for tangible action from the Democratic Party, criticized by many longtime reproductive rights advocates for its failure to codify abortion rights over the past five decades. Despite what feels like defeat in conservative states, progressive pro-abortion activists have vowed to keep fighting, finding new, creative, and tenacious forms of pushback, and reminding us, as they have done for years, that Roe was always the floor, not the ceiling.

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