And yet, despite their record of affirmation, I am scared. I am of an age where I can remember what life was like for women in the years before Roe.
To be of childbearing age in the 1960s, as my friends and I were, meant knowing that our bodies and our futures didn’t belong to us. Whatever we hoped to do with our lives could be compromised by the capriciousness of nature or by a thoughtless mistake or a contraceptive mishap.
Young people, then and now, are sexual beings. But before Roe, it was females who paid the biggest price for sexual expression. In my circle back then, I knew of women who’d had terrifying back-alley abortions, sometimes without anesthesia. After one friend had an illegal abortion, she developed a pelvic infection and was rendered sterile.
Equally common in that time were young people forced into unwise early marriages as their families attempted to “legitimize” an unplanned pregnancy. Those unions rarely lasted.
In my second year at college, I became pregnant. This was a decade before legalization. At first, I tried to self-abort with various home remedies. None worked. In one attempt — which involved overdosing on a drug rumored to be an abortifacient — I nearly died. I was 19.
I can say without hesitation that if not for his care, my life would have gone in an altogether different direction. I wouldn’t today be a writer and a professor.
To my knowledge, none have suffered the trauma — frequent enough among my peers — of birthing an out-of-wedlock child and then being pressured to surrender it for adoption.
I teach them science journalism and opinion writing. Every now and then, a student will ask me to propose an idea for an essay or op-ed topic. In a couple of instances I’ve offered, “How about speculating about what your life might be like if Roe v. Wade were repealed?”
It seemed a topic that, given their age, might arouse their interest and provide the basis for a passionate essay.
But I was mistaken. In two instances where I’d suggested this subject, the students looked at me as if I was talking about something as distant from their experience as the War of 1812. One young woman even responded with a declarative, “That’s never going to happen.”
Another offered that it wouldn’t be a problem. She’d “simply travel to a state where it was legal.”
And yet, despite these numbers, too many Americans have adopted the complacent attitude of some of my students.
In many ways, my students’ assumptions echo those of large sectors of the public. For them and for others who came of age in a post-Roe America, legal abortion was normal. It was just there. Though they might have carried a placard to pro-choice rallies or contributed a few dollars to Planned Parenthood, they didn’t feel reproductive rights was an issue that required their consistent attention.
On the other side, the Americans who called themselves “pro-life” and took action to curb abortion rights have been far more determined.
The Supreme Court that will hear this Wednesday’s arguments includes six Republican appointees.
Whether or not Roe survives, the lesson we must all learn is that preserving our rights — be they in speech, citizenship, privacy or reproduction — requires constant vigilance.
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