Many of the cases that arrive before the U.S. Supreme Court begin with individuals either trying right a wrong or make their own lives better. They rarely expect to launch a national movement. That was pretty much the case when Norma McCorvey found herself pregnant with her third child in 1969. An unemployed carnival worker living outside Dallas at the time, McCorvey apparently had led a rough life and had given up her first two children for adoption. She didn’t need – and couldn’t afford – to bring another child into the world. However, the state of Texas didn’t allow for abortions except to save the life of the mother. Even rape and incest victims couldn’t end their unwanted pregnancies. Like so many women in her situation, McCorvey was too poor to travel to another state where abortions were safe and legal. She even tried to obtain an illegal abortion, but again the cost was prohibitive. She sought legal help and ended up under the guidance of attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington.
In 1970, after McCorvey had given birth and given up the baby, Coffee and Weddington filed paper work challenging the Texas law and bestowed the name “Jane Roe” upon their client. They targeted then-Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. Wade had entered the national spotlight nearly a decade earlier when he prosecuted Jack Ruby for killing Lee Harvey Oswald who had been accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy. (Wade would later come to light as a ruthless prosecutor who engaged in unscrupulous legal maneuvers to ensure criminal prosecutions, no matter the cost and despite evidence to the contrary.)
After McCorvey’s suit was filed, a Texas district court ruled the state’s abortion ban violated the constitutional right to privacy under the 14th Amendment. Wade persisted, however, and vowed to prosecute any doctor who performed what he deemed unnecessary abortions in the state. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court and, in a 7-2 ruling on January 22, 1973, abortion was fully legalized in the United States.
That was pretty much the end of the issue until the 1980s, when right-wing religious leaders began stoking the fires of anti-abortion rhetoric. It accompanied the presidency of Ronald Reagan who openly stated he wished for a return to an America before the 1960s. That should say enough about his bigoted state of mind, but it aligned with a growing hostility towards progressive ideology and civil rights legislation.
Earlier this week the unexpected news arrived that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe vs. Wade by the end of its current term in June. We wouldn’t know anything about this if it wasn’t for the leak of a draft opinion by Associate Justice Samuel Alito who declares the Roe decision “egregiously wrong” in terms of constitutional practicality. Chief Justice John Roberts has confirmed the veracity of the statement, but has joined many others in condemning the leak.
For many of us the leak isn’t the main concern. It’s what it says. There is now a very real possibility that nearly a half century of protection for that part of women’s overall health care could end because a handful of conservative extremists on the High Court want to inject their personal views into it.
For their like-minded ilk in the American public, the overturning of Roe marks the end of a long-fought battle in their alleged “pro-life” agenda; a perverted early Mother’s Day gift. It doesn’t matter that a majority of Americans don’t want to see a complete ban on abortion. They’ve been working for this moment over the past four decades.
For liberals, though, this is a much more dire situation. While the current case that brought Roe back into the forefront is limited to just abortion, progressives see other seminal SCOTUS decisions in the judicial crosshairs. It really isn’t extraordinary to see such cases as Obergefell vs. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, reversed. Along with abortion, queer rights have been a target of far-right conservatives. But, if the Court sees fit to outlaw abortion at the national level (and leave it up to individual states), it could also reasonably overturn Griswold vs. Connecticut, which ruled that states could not deny birth control to married couples. Before that decision, married residents of Connecticut (and a few other states) couldn’t legally purchase birth control.
To some conservatives, abortion has become another form of birth control, which is not what contemporary feminists who jump-started the modern women’s movement desired. The latter group had always declared that abortion should be a woman’s last choice. But, with the overall concept of birth control in mind, is it possible a woman who has a tubal ligation could be criminally prosecuted? For that matter, could men who have vasectomies be subject to criminal jurisprudence? How about condoms or IUDs? Could those be outlawed?
Why stop with Roe? Aside from Obergefell and Griswold, could the Court target Loving vs. Virginia, the case that struck laws against interracial marriage? How about Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, which outlaws racial desegregation in schools?
Remember that, when Antonin Scalia died in 2016, Republicans in the Senate displayed their usual contempt and disdain for President Obama by refusing to hold hearings on his nominee to the Court, until after Donald Trump got into office. They stated that, since Scalia’s death occurred during an election year, the incoming president should select his replacement. Yet, upon the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, they rammed through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett – a character straight out of “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
That social and religious conservatives want to dictate what women can and cannot do with their own bodies conflicts with the long-held American vision of individual freedom. Many of these people screamed at the thought mandatory mask-wearing or forced vaccinations at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; crying they should have autonomy over their own bodies. Really? What an original concept.
Conservatives herald the beauty of life, but a life costs hard dollars in the very real world of child-rearing. Since 2019, for example, the state of Texas has experienced a 1,100% rise in children placed into foster care. Love and compassion alone won’t pay those bills, no matter how much prayer one puts forth. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie once emphasized that pro-life means the entire life cycle – not just up to the moment the fetus is born.
The reasons why an individual woman wants to end a pregnancy are myriad, but it is no one else’s business. As painful a decision as it may be, I’d rather see a woman end a pregnancy she doesn’t want than give birth to a child she doesn’t want. Children who come into the world unwanted are often unloved. That’s an awful fate for someone.
Regardless, pregnancy and birth are individual choices. No one – not the Supreme Court and not a politician – has the right to interfere with that.