Abortion: The Archive Doesn’t Lie, but Republicans Do
There’s a story whispered among my family about one of my grandmother’s cousins. She died sometime in the early 1960s under very mysterious circumstances. When my mother and aunt were kids, my grandmother told them she died because she fell into a fire. (Really, Grandma? Was that some weird metaphorical thing you were trying to do there?)
What we know now, of course, is that she had an illegal abortion and died from complications. She left behind a family who grieved in secret and lied to cover up what really happened. She was in her thirties.
This is the history to which we are now openly returning. We sit and watch, as though all of us are on a speeding train conducted by white, Republican men in MAGA hats, whose final destination is not, as they so earnestly tell us, to save the babies, but to broadly remove women’s citizenship rights.
It’s not even just about abortion.
Of course, it is also very much about abortion, obviously. Within the past month, Georgia (where I live) and Ohio have passed two of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country — laws which are blatantly unconstitutional and designed to challenge the existing precedent for legal abortion during the first trimester. This precedent, of course, was decided by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973. (Sadly, much too late for my grandma’s cousin.) The bills in Georgia and Ohio, openly contrary to Roe’s ruling, ban abortion after 6 weeks gestational age. They (so smartly and generously!) allow a few exceptions, including rape and incest.
Alabama, on the other hand, has leaned all the way in.
Their law, passed on Tuesday in the Senate, bans abortion at every stage of pregnancy, and, like the other states, criminalizes physicians who perform the procedure, who face up to 99 years in prison if convicted of performing an abortion.
Yet this law contains no exceptions for rape or incest.
The Republicans who designed and passed these bills have exactly one thing in mind — to achieve “personhood” status for the fetus and to put abortion rights back on the table for new court decisions. With a conservative-leaning Supreme Court and last year’s addition of openly pro-life and alleged sexual predator Justice Brett Kavanaugh, those challenges will most likely be successful.
Leaving aside the longstanding problem that the Supreme Court is the institution that granted bodily freedom to Americans less than 50 years ago in the first place, there’s another enormous elephant in the room — the question of whether people who can become pregnant can ever be full citizens.
Historian Linda Kerber has written that women in the past bore all the obligations of citizenship with few of its actual rights.1 In fact, nearly all of the rights that American women enjoy today in 2019 — the vote, the right to access credit, the right to higher education, the right to be treated equally before the law — are roughly only a century old. And that doesn’t even include the right to access contraception and abortion, which have only been legal since 1965 and 1973, respectively. And of course, for women of color, trans people, and nonbinary people, they were kept from these rights for even longer and continue to be openly excluded from full citizenship in many ways.
It’s hard for many today to imagine a world where women couldn’t go to school, run for office, start a business, or really do much of anything outside of the home, but the archive doesn’t lie. The rights that we enjoy now are not the default status. The default status for anyone who is not white, straight, or male, as history shows, is actually to have no rights at all.
The only specific right of women enshrined in the Constitution is the right to vote, which passed in 1919 as an amendment. In case you didn’t know, even amendments can be repealed — remember Prohibition?
And in any case, the right to vote means very little on its own without the others as a full complement. Suffrage advocates fundamentally understood this from the very beginning. Indeed, as the fight for woman suffrage heated up after Reconstruction, lawyer Margaret Pearce expressed in the 1880s to a group of her fellow women attorneys that, “Sometimes I feel that there is no question so sacredly important to woman as [the choice of motherhood], and that the ballot even will be worth but little to her.”2
In removing the right to bodily freedom, these other rights are merely dominos waiting to fall.
Over the course of the twentieth century, both state legislatures and the federal government enacted laws to transform women’s citizenship and put them into parity with men. Nineteen years into the twenty-first century, we are now seeing the ultimate backlash against those legal achievements.
Abortion was the last “right” to be granted in 1973. It’s now the first on the table to be taken away – again.
What a short century indeed.
- Emily’s List
- Planned Parenthood
- Planned Parenthood Southeast: Donate here to directly help pro-choice Alabamians fight this new law.
- The Yellowhammer Abortion Fund: Another good choice to donate directly to the legal fight in Alabama
- The American Civil Liberties Union
- Linda K. Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (Hill and Wang, 1998). Return to text.
- Report of the Corresponding Secretary (Martha Pearce), Equity Club Annual 1888, Dillon Collection, Schlesinger Library; Virginia G. Drachman, Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America: The Letters of the Equity Club, 1887-1890 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 85. Return to text.
Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a Faculty Fellow in the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, & Society. Her research centers on the forces of law and medicine, and their role in the early history of public health and the birth control movement. She has a background in Public History and before returning for her doctorate, worked for various history museums and state agencies on historic garden preservation, public history projects, and Section 106 federal and state historic resource protection.