Abortion and Why People are Afraid

Andrew Joseph Pegoda, University of Houston

As a women’s studies professor, I observe one common thread when thinking about abortion, especially the Dobbs decision and the myriad of responses to it: fear. Lots of fear from all sides. Such feelings are often deeply internalized. Such emotions are also very warranted for the people now further lacking complete autonomy over their body. 

Women and other people who can become pregnant (e.g., nonbinary, intersex, trans men) rightfully want control over their bodies, and their fellow feminist supporters want them to have such rights. 

When the Dobbs leak made breaking news on May 2, anxious responses were immediate and have been on-going since. 

My students and I had an impromptu, emergency teach-in because they had so much fear over this leak. I mainly just listened. Comments were full of sadness, anger, and even plans to evacuate the nation. They expressed wanting the option of an abortion if they didn’t want to be a parent, if the pregnancy happened because of rape, or if carrying a baby put their life in danger. Many of my students have already lived with a heightened sense of fear because of their disability, gender, sexuality, or race. The strong prospect of having a key aspect of healthcare cut off only increased their alarm.

With the Dobbs decision official and with states further limiting access to abortion, healthcare professionals are especially afraid of what will happen to the people who turn to at-home abortions. Abortion has always existed and will always exist, and when safe access to abortion is absent, people often have serious health emergencies or even die.  

Lawyers, activists, and many others are also fearful. Given the right-wing nature of current politics, they see Dobbs as a harbinger of things to come. Some people are already being targeted for prosecution following miscarriages (miscarriage or “spontaneous abortion” is how around 30 percent of pregnancies end), and others are being denied needed healthcare because of newly created gray areas. Hospitals and their lawyers are fearful of lawsuits, while physicians are fearful for their patients’ well-being. 

Because the overturned Roe was situated in a legal right to privacy—a kind of “mind your own business” doctrine toward possible intrusion from governmental institutions—other events are prompting fear, too. For example, access to contraception and marriage licenses are less secure and are actively under increased attack by Republicans and some of their religious supporters.  

Photo by Emma Guliani.

Guardians and others who care for children are further worried and fearful for their children who may become pregnant and be forced to give birth, especially if that happens because of a rape.  

Colleges are fearful of how to respond when students seek or attempt illegal abortions on campus. They are also concerned about retention and student success when students are forced to continue unwanted pregnancies.

Professors are fearful of appropriately and effectively teaching about abortion, balancing the needs of our students and their right to accurate biological and historical information and the potential of legal censorship and even lawsuits, should someone say an academic lesson encouraged them to seek abortion. 

Some religions, such as the theistic Judaism and the non-theistic Satanic Temple, often see access to safe abortion as an essential right. They are further fearful of and upset about their religious rights being violated because of Dobbs

And of course, there are many other religious people who—mainly since only the early 1980s—ground their opposition to abortion in fear, believing abortion leads to a lost life and believing such a loss is a travesty. I’m reminded of a group of fearful older people who protested in front of a local intermediate school each day, all day, for weeks holding graphic anti-abortion signs. They were so afraid. Viewed historically, such religious and political oppositions, stemming from the rhetoric of some religious leaders and Republican politicians, are rooted in fears of a declining white population. Such anti-abortion fears are also rooted in fearing people they see as needing to be controlled: women and other minorities acquiring a greater public voice. 

(Indeed, I had long thought that Roe would never actually be overturned because it has been used to get and retain the vote of Christians en masse. For decades, they were told “abortion is murder” and as such “must be stopped above all else.” This created a large bloc of single-issue voters, voters who increasingly voted against their own best interests.)

Right-wing politicians, including judges and justices, are also generally afraid of people who demand inclusion, equality, equity, or progress—the people with loud political voices who want to disrupt the status quo. The status quo wants us to live in fear of them and of their power. By outlawing virtually all abortion rights, they know they only increase our fear, fears that are certainly valid. 

More than ever, it’s essential for those who truly support a multicultural, inclusive society with strong rights of bodily autonomy and rights of privacy to support each other and to continue expressing their demands. 

As for solutions, I’m not sure, other than to say far too many activists default to “go vote” which has aptly been deemed a hollow equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” Voting rights are far too restricted, and politicians don’t listen to us anyway. 

But, if we can recognize that fear links many of our feelings and experiences, perhaps, we can all have more meaningful conversations. Dialogue with those fearful in misguided ways (such as thinking Christian theologies by definition must oppose and have always opposed abortion) or who are fearful only after being scared by the powerful is all the more important.