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  • Jan Flynn

Why I’m Marching Again

This time it’s not for me

Photo by author: Bans Off Our Bodies March, May 14, 2022, Idaho State Capital

That’s me and my husband, rabble-rousing again

Life isn’t entirely comfortable for a progressive in Idaho these days — if it ever has been. On the other hand, life isn’t entirely comfortable for anybody in the United States these days, with primary elections coming at us and campaigns for the midterms already uglier than a mud fence in a rainstorm.

And while my conservative brethren — and, confoundingly, sistren — have been whittling away at reproductive rights for decades, the leaked draft of an opinion by Justice Alito that would overturn Roe vs Wade if the conservatory majority on the court supports it — as they almost certainly will, even if it undergoes a few tweaks — has ignited another firestorm. This one’s got me on fire too.

So I’m marching again like it’s 1973.

Being a liberal, I am quick with the qualifiers: I would never encourage another woman to have an abortion. I would never encourage her not to. It’s a monumental, gut-wrenching decision to have to make, and I am not in the position to judge anybody’s reasons for considering themselves able or unable to take on the life-altering challenges and risks of pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing — or, as Justice Amy Comey Barrett blithely suggests, consigning a newborn to a “safe haven.”

I know a number of women who are distressed by abortion and cannot imagine a situation in which they would choose it for themselves. But they are also clear that, while it’s a decision they might lament or deplore, it’s not one the government should be making on a woman’s behalf.

I’m not “comfortable” with abortion either. I don’t see how any right-minded person could be — but until the day comes when humans have either perfected birth control (also under growing attack from the right) or somehow have no more unwanted pregnancies as well as no more pregnancies that end up implanting in the Fallopian tubes or otherwise threatening the life of the mother, then abortion will continue to be a necessary part of health care.

Since we have neither perfect birth control nor a guarantee that all pregnancies are both wanted and healthy, then the barbaric alternatives are these: compulsory pregnancy and forced childbirth. Women will die.

I’m not going to change your mind about abortion

If you are confirmed in your anti-abortion stance, there is not an argument from my point of view that you haven’t heard. Nor are you going to persuade me to reverse my viewpoint.

I wish we could simply agree to disagree and leave one another in peace. There are many wrongs in this world that we could direct our combined energy to set right if we could get past this issue that politicians have found to be such a useful wedge to drive us apart.

However, that’s not where we are. If your belief system holds that abortion at any stage of gestation equals the murder of an innocent human being, then I understand your horror. I can tell you honestly that I wish abortions were vanishingly rare — and I’d like to see access to reproductive information and healthcare vastly expanded towards that end.

But I can’t accept having a civil right — one we fought for and won 50 years ago, one that has survived every challenge to it since — taken away. The Supreme Court has reversed its own decisions before, if rarely. But never before has it abrogated a previously recognized constitutional right.

And if we do lose this constitutional protection, what’s next? The American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology is deeply concerned about what it would mean for doctors’ ability to care for their patients. Certain kinds of birth control, such as the IUD and Plan B medication which prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, are already coming into question by conservatives who maintain that human life begins at the moment sperm meets egg. Also threatened would be trans-affirming healthcare and fertility treatments such as IVF, which can result in unused embryos.

In Louisiana, the state legislature has already advanced a bill that would define personhood as beginning at the moment of conception, allowing prosecutors to charge anyone who performs or undergoes an abortion with murder. And get this:

HB813 by Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City) would also allow the state to disregard any federal court rulings contradicting the new law and would grant the legislature the right to impeach and remove any state judges that attempt to block it from taking effect.

What might that mean for women who underwent abortion a year ago, or five years, or twenty? There is no statute of limitations on murder, after all.

And what of women who have natural, spontaneous abortions — AKA miscarriages — what can they look forward to in a post-Roe America? My mother, who had a miscarriage in the 1940s, remembered for the rest of her life the suspicion and judgment she was subjected to by the nuns at the Catholic hospital, the only hospital in the small Oregon town where she lived. How much worse could it have been if the law allowed her to be viewed as a murder suspect?

Turpentine and coat hangers

Supporters of the Alito opinion like to tell us to calm down: overturning Roe isn’t that big a deal. Leaving aside the obvious question of why, then, the right has been so devoted to abolishing it, we’re supposed to be mollified by the decline of abortion access in so many states that has already taken place, as well as the availability of medication abortion. See? Things won’t be all that different.

But in states where abortion bans will be triggered as soon as Roe is gone, medication abortion will be illegal too. Women and girls who don’t have the money or means to travel to another state to access care will be left with the same options they had in the 50s: bear an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth, face the wrenching separation of giving the baby up for adoption or the prospect of raising a child when they’re not equipped to do so emotionally or financially — or try to end the pregnancy themselves.

It’s hard to overstate the desperation of a woman — or, again, a girl — who is pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. I’m old enough to remember what it was like to be a young woman prior to the passage of Roe vs Wade: the girls who quietly disappeared in high school, spirited off to a home for unwed mothers; the head cheerleader, a promising young woman with a bright future, whose life — along with the football quarterback — was narrowed into premature adulthood when they “had to” get married halfway through their senior year (the quarterback at least got to graduate; she didn’t).

Worse were the stories of girls who had done horrific things to themselves. All of us knew someone who knew someone who had thrown themselves down flights of stairs or who had resorted to the sharpened coat hanger, with dreadful results.

Being a young woman in those days meant living under an unrelenting pall of dread. At the same time, the pressures to have sex — from our boyfriends, from the burgeoning free-love culture, from our own physiologies — were no less acute than young women face now.

There was another story my mother told me, about an older cousin of hers. This was back in Iowa in the early 1930s, when my mother was a young teen and her cousin was old enough to be dating.

The cousin found herself, in the parlance of the times, in trouble. The depth of that trouble, in small-town Iowa during that time, is hard to plumb. With no better recourse, the cousin drank turpentine to get rid of her pregnancy. The poisoning resulted in an agonizing death that took days.

Before she died, the cousin was married off to the boy in question — the “guilty party” as my mother said — in a deathbed ceremony meant to spare both families the remaining shreds of their reputations in the community. But the stain, of course, was indelible.

The good old days

A third story my mother told me: she was a talented student of the violin. I still have the instrument she played — and it’s the same one she played for the funeral of her beloved violin teacher. My mother was in high school at the time. Her teacher had given birth to her first baby, a girl, but neither of them had survived the delivery.

My mother stood there, playing the requested hymns, over the open casket in which lay her teacher and the baby — “like a stiff little doll,” as my mother said.

Childbirth, as any woman who has been through it can tell you, brings women to the brink, to the extreme edge of mortality. Sometimes it takes women with it. Death in childbirth has become much rarer, but it still happens. As the advocacy group Mom in Congress notes on their website:

The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of any high resource country—and it is the only country outside of Afghanistan and Sudan where the rate is rising. Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in America.

That’s another reality that the anti-choice forces would like us to overlook. Childbirth, when planned and/or desired, can be the greatest of blessings. But it is always life-altering, and it can be life-threatening. It is not something that should ever be imposed on one human being by another.

So I’m marching again

I’m well past the time in my life where an abortion ban will condemn me to carry out an unwanted pregnancy. But I can’t countenance the idea that my daughter-in-law, or my grandnieces, or any future granddaughter, will not have the same rights as I had to determine my own future.

The same afternoon, after my husband and I participated in the Bans Off Our Bodies March — which drew thousands to the Idaho Capital in a joyously determined, peaceful yet passionate demonstration — we watched our grandnephew and his date, along with their friends, get their pictures taken before their prom.

Being in the company of these happy, healthy, beautiful and high-achieving young people always brightens our spirits. It’s a life-affirming counterbalance to the lousy national and world news that threatens to drag us down if we let it. The world, we always conclude, is worth fighting for after all.

This particular crew of high-school juniors are all buddies rather than affirmed couples. They had a great time and finished off the evening with midnight ice cream sundaes at my niece’s house.

The thought that any of those glorious young women could have their bodily autonomy taken away from them by a cabal of judges whose views don’t accord with the majority of Americans — that they could be effectively sent back to the era of dread, of coat hangers and turpentine — that’s a thought I can’t accept.

As my mother would say after telling me one of those stories I’ve just shared, “What they call the good old days weren’t so good — they were just old.”

None of those lovely girls I watched having their pictures taken may ever choose to have an abortion — I sincerely hope they are never in the position where they even need to make such a decision. But the choice should be theirs.

And I’ll keep marching for them.

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