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Abortion Without Roe

What does the landmark Supreme Court ruling mean to a country always on the brink of losing it?

Peter Keegan/Getty Images

Earlier this week, 207 members of Congress asked the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade and take up the question of whether it “should be reconsidered and, if appropriate, overruled.” The amicus brief was submitted in June Medical Services L.L.C. v. Gee, a case to determine if Louisiana can require abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges—highly politicized business contracts—with nearby hospitals. Providers warn that the law, if enacted, will shutter clinics, which of course the court already understands. In 2016, it struck down a nearly identical law in Texas because it would have done the same thing.

Which made the brief both surprising and not: Of the 207 signatories (all but two of them Republican), most if not all have campaigned on a belief that Roe should be overturned. And so here we are, greeting a new decade with an old problem: What does Roe mean to a country always on the brink of losing it?

Roe was decided in 1973, and the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion in nearly all cases and cuts off access for millions of low-income Medicaid recipients, was passed just three years later. In the decades since, states have enacted a truly staggering number of restrictions to make the procedure more expensive, more time consuming, and more humiliating to access—whether it was immigration checkpoints in Texas blocking a person’s route to a distant clinic or a working parent’s inability to take enough time off work to comply with a mandatory waiting period. Clinics have closed, the number of doctors performing the procedure has declined, and people have suffered. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s assessment, in 2018, of a post-Roe landscape just as easily described access with the ruling intact: “Any woman who has the means to travel from one state to another … will have access to a safe abortion. So it’s the poor people—whatever the state legislation may be, whatever the court may do—it is only poor women who will suffer.”

The amicus brief, then, is correct on at least one point: Our present circumstances reveal the “unworkability of the ‘right to abortion’ found in Roe.” But even as the legal status quo is untenable, organizers across the country—particularly in deeply conservative states where Roe has long been more concept than reality—have built shadow infrastructures to help people overcome the legal, financial, geographic, and circumstantial barriers to access. This is the future of abortion rights: confrontational, nimble, collaborative, deeply moral.

Across the country, there are organizations that offer legal representation to pregnant minors navigating parental consent laws and clinic workers who hold odd hours and take late-night calls from scared 17-year-olds. National and state-level abortion funds struggle every day to cover costs for people who are otherwise unable to access care. (In a recent interview, Kamyon Conner, executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, called funds like hers “a radical social safety net that shouldn’t have to exist.”) Beyond those networks, friends, cousins, and strangers offer rides, whatever cash they can, and places to stay. Lawyers and physicians work to clear legal paths for self-managed abortion while also fighting the criminalization that punishes people for trying to safely terminate their pregnancies outside of a clinic setting. (Jill Adams, executive director of the legal organization If/When/How, told The New Republic in the wake of the amicus brief that her organization “will keep bringing relief to people unjustly criminalized for pregnancy outcomes and building the legal foundation for all people’s sexual and reproductive liberation,” regardless of the status of Roe.)

Elsewhere, self-trained providers share information to demystify abortion and help others end their pregnancies on their own terms. (“Whatever’s your darkest question that you can’t ask your husband and you can barely ask yourself, you can ask me,” one such provider told her clients.) Before them, there were others. It is easy to see the violence of the law, but looking around will also reveal the people working in the face of great need and great struggle to take care of each other in spite of it.

It’s work that continues whether or not Roe holds, which makes the possible loss of the precedent—whether now, later, or never—both wildly consequential and meaningless at the same time. When thinking about these possibilities, I find myself returning to an essay by science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson published by Commune magazine. In it, Robinson suggests moving past the question of optimism or pessimism in our shared struggles. “The situation is bad,” he wrote, “yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already.” Roe might hold, or it might not. The work ahead is the same.