(The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is running a shorter version of this essay for Father’s Day. Here’s the linked, full-length original.)
In early 1973, when my sister was twelve years old and I was eight, the US Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that early abortions are private decisions protected from state intrusion by the US Constitution.
Now, my own daughter is 12, and the odds are greater than ever that the court will overturn Roe, permitting state governments to ban or restrict access to abortion as they see fit.
What would overturning Roe mean for my daughter?
It would mean different things than you might first expect: fewer changes for her personal choices and more changes in the fabric—the unity—of her society.
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Let me put this issue in a personal context: Recently, I took my daughter and five of her classmates to a movie. (Yes, we went by bus.) These girls are, in most respects, still children. In one way, however, they’re at the early edge of womanhood. Odds are that in the next year or two, they’ll all have their first periods. A few probably already have. (Twelve-and-a-half is the median age for first periods, as the population research center Guttmacher Institute notes in its comprehensive new report Abortion in Women’s Lives (pdf).)
Dad that I am, I find it hard to think of these six youngsters—my baby girl and her friends whom I’ve known, in some cases, since preschool—as budding women. But my discomfort doesn’t stop the clock. If these girls are typical of US women, they’ll choose to have sex for the first time in about five years, a few months before their eighteenth birthdays. That’s the norm. And they’ll remain both sexually active and fertile for 35 years, until menopause in their early fifties. (Again, Guttmacher.)
For five of those 35 years—again, assuming my movie-night wards are average—they will be pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or postpartum. The other 30 years they’ll spend trying not to get pregnant.
If they’re typical, four of the six will succeed. They’ll enjoy the birthright of their sexuality and still have only the pregnancies they plan and desire.
Unfortunately, two of these young women will likely fail: they will, at some time in their lives, have pregnancies so unwelcome that they choose to seek abortions. The abortions won’t be undertaken gladly or lightly. If these young women are typical, they’ll be certain that abortion is the lesser of evils. They will also feel that abortion is a harsh intrusion into the miracle of reproduction—a choice that is not immoral but is still terribly sad. (Guttmacher.) For that reason, and for their own safety, they’ll want to terminate their unwanted pregnancies as early after conception as possible.
Overturning Roe would not actually prevent these abortions from happening. Just as prohibition didn’t stop drinking, banning abortion doesn’t stop abortion—or it doesn’t stop many abortions. Abortion is commonplace worldwide, whatever its legal status, as Susan Cohen writes. It was commonplace in the United States before Roe v. Wade, as Rachel Benson Gold writes. What banning abortions does is delay them and send them underground or across borders—making them more dangerous for women, as David Garrow documents in his masterful history Liberty and Sexuality.
Admittedly, my daughter and her friends probably face less risk than typical American girls. They come from fortunate families. In a post-Roe America, college-bound, middle-class girls—and the educated, middle-class women they tend to become—probably would not have to resort to back-alley abortions. For one thing, these girls live in a state (Washington) where reproductive rights likely won’t change even without Roe. For another, they live close to a country (Canada) where abortion rights remain unthreatened. And for a third, even if they moved to a state that had outlawed abortion, they’d probably have the means to travel to a prochoice state, as did tens of thousands of women in the years before Roe.
Having to travel to get safe abortions would be inconvenient. It would also infringe on these girls’ autonomy—their control over their own bodies. And it would delay those abortions until somewhat later in pregnancy, increasingly the minuscule health risks of legal abortion. But even when delayed, legal abortion remains many times safer than childbirth.
So the personal impacts of overturning Roe would be real for my daughter and her friends. But they might be smaller than you would have supposed, given the intensity of the culture war over abortion.
Still, overturning Roe would have other effects, and these effects concern me just as much. It would shape profoundly the nation in which the girls will live their lives, just as Roe has shaped the nation in which my sister and I have grown.
Reversing Roe would create in many red states a two-tier system of reproductive rights. The day after Roe, the red-blue map of US presidential elections would begin turning into a hazard map for low-income women. (USA Today recently drew such a map.) Daughters of fortunate families would travel to blue states to get abortions. Daughters of unfortunate families would risk abortions from clandestine providers close to home, endangering their lives. Or they’d order the abortion pill from shady Internet operators. Or they’d attempt to induce abortions themselves, as did thousands before Roe. Or they’d board Greyhound buses or beg rides across state lines in search of legal abortions.
Or—and this outcome might be just as tragic—they’d bear children they resented and never wanted in the first place. Unwanted births bring a chain of disheartening consequences: more infant deaths, more child abuse and neglect, more school failure, more children in foster care and juvenile courts. And more women who blame themselves for all of these ills.
The long-term implications of this reproductive schism would be grave for unfortunate and fortunate alike. My sister and I have lived in a country that guaranteed women—as a fundamental, American right—that they alone would choose whether to carry early pregnancies to term. This inalienable guarantee has been part of the broad foundation of legal and political equality that all Americans knew they stood upon: the equal entitlement to freedom that has always defined Americans’ understanding of themselves as a people.
Overturning Roe would degrade women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. It would demote reproductive choice from a right to a privilege—a privilege distributed, like others, on the basis of money. Downgrading reproductive choices in this way—lumping them in with other class-based commodities of American life such as higher education, medical care, and housing—would substantially erode Americans’ sense of equality.
And thus, even if my daughter and her friends suffer little loss of choice themsel
ves, overturning Roe would nonetheless cost them something of surpassing value. It would deny them the sense that they live in a country that stands up for all women. It would rob them of another reason to believe that as Americans, we’re not just a collection of workers and consumers who happen to share a currency, we’re a nation—we’re all in this life together.
One final note of political prognosis: If overturning Roe triggers a 50-state brawl—the mother of all abortion battles—watch for fathers of daughters to play a surprising role. Fathers today are champions not so much of their daughters’ virtue as of their daughters’ rights. One recent study conducted by Yale University’s Ebonya Washington and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed, for example, that members of the US Congress who have more daughters are much more likely to vote for abortion rights than are those male representatives who have fewer daughters. Among members of Congress with two or three children, having all girls—versus all boys—causes a substantial pro-choice shift in voting.
Speaking only for myself, I can say that I’m vehement about my daughter having access to all reproductive choices. It’s not because I don’t trust her. It’s that I do. She and her friends are smart, confident girls and they’ll almost always make wise decisions. They’ll choose good partners, love them and be loved in return. They’ll make choices that are right for them about when to have sex and when not to. When they do express their sexuality, they’ll use effective contraceptives to avoid disease and pregnancy. They’ll make use of emergency contraceptives as a first recourse when normal contraceptives fail. When it’s time, they’ll marry and have children and raise them well. I have no doubts about any of these things.
But I also have no doubts that they will make a few mistakes over their lives, a few lapses of judgment. And I know that no contraceptive is perfectly effective. And I know that sexual violence and coercion are all too common.
And when those unlucky two of my six movie companions end up with an unwanted pregnancy, I don’t trust Justice Antonin Scalia or Samuel Alito—or even the members of the Washington State legislature—to decide what’s best. I trust my daughter Kathryn and her friends Alison, Jade, Lily, Nicole, and Nikki.