After Roe…and Before Something Better?

Lora Wildenthal, CSWGS Faculty Affiliate

Could “After Roe” also be “Before something better than Roe?” 

Some days I’m optimistic, because the current moment shows us an outpouring of abortion stories, abortion information, and other abortion talk. And if reproductive justice has to be weaponized for party politics, the U.S. Republican Party is doing a great job of making itself the party of forcing children to give birth and bringing people to the brink of death from sepsis by withholding miscarriage care. We can hope for change there, although so much unnecessary suffering is happening meanwhile. Yet we have seen momentous change in other difficult political environments, from Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Chile to Ireland.   

Image by Debra Sweet.

Besides optimism, I anticipate something better than Roe for the reason that “During Roe” was not all that great. Neither abortion nor contraception ever fully landed within health care, and comprehensive, affordable, navigable health care itself continues to be out of reach for ordinary people in the U.S. Quality sex education at school has never taken root in states such as my own, Texas. Rice students’ statements in class about their experiences with supposed “sex education” in Texas and some other states are shocking—and that just reflects before Dobbs. Our avowed commitment to equality is in deep tension with the hatred and willed ignorance cultivated in such curricula for gay, trans, and/or female bodies. Those students were not taken in, because young people always see through adult hypocrisy. Even so, their valuable time was wasted—time that could have been spent providing them with objective information. Young people were and are left on their own to imagine the joy of sexuality.

As a historian of gender, race, and rights, I do believe that the underlying problem is the pervasive notion that some people are destined to serve others, rather than to determine their own lives. People in the “woman” category are seen that way consistently, whether consciously and non-consciously. This remains true no matter how much paid work they do or how many of them are heads of their households. The burden of care rests disproportionately on those in the feminized category. Everyone of all sexes and races in the world has benefited from this gendered service and selflessness. Therefore, people’s reactions to shifting and sharing the burden of care is panic and outrage. It is interesting that the price of the supposedly priceless things in life turns out to be quite low, and kept that way through concentrated effort. The deep-seated nature of the prejudice means that it will not easily or lastingly be eliminated. But if it is hard to change, or even see into, people’s hearts, the impact of deep-seated exploitative ideas can be ameliorated through public policy. Public policy can improve lives in the short and long term, even as prejudice persists. 

The impact of those deep-seated exploitative ideas can also be exacerbated through public policy, unfortunately. Right now, Texans and so many others in this country are experiencing the stress of public policies that pit us against each other. Current policies too often raise suspicion and fear rather than promoting mutual aid. We have to wonder if ordinary errands will result in dying by gunfire, purely because the firearms industry’s quest for profits has produced public policy on guns that dials up the impacts of racism and pathological masculinity. We have to wonder if vigilantes are going to bring lies and violence to our polling station when we go to vote. We have to wonder if our good-faith efforts to assist others in exercising bodily self-determination will result in our prosecution and imprisonment. Politicians who should be solving problems for Texans or the residents of their states are staking their own success instead on increasing divisions. Their strategy for gaining electoral support, or more importantly the support of a few paranoid megadonors, rests on pitting people against each other. Such strategy carries forward years of efforts to criminalize humanitarian assistance for undocumented migrants and to criminalize the migrants themselves. When it is wrong to hand someone a bottle of water on a hot day, as in Georgia today, you know you are living under some bad public policy. Currently Texas is controlled by politicians who are in the pocket of extremist funders and so do not even try to reflect the stated opinions of the majority of their constituents. We don’t need perfect politicians; we just need politicians who at least try to serve the public.

Serving and caring for others is vital, but should be shared commitments. Personal self-determination is also vital. Care and self-determination are not in tension with each other; people need self-determination in order to enter into caring relationships and commitments. Service and care should be socially valued, not taken for granted or “privatized,” as if the mass phenomenon of unrecognized, unsupported carework is each person’s random, individual choice among other viable options. Mutual care and assistance is exactly what we need, and what our policies should support. We are now experiencing climate disaster, involuntary migration, war, inflation, and recession. We face a future that will definitely bring us more of at least the first two: climate disaster and involuntary migration. We will have many opportunities to show mutuality, and we won’t survive without it. 

Hand out food and water, fund abortions for those who want them, care for the carers, and call for equality across sexualities and gender identities, if those are your values. If those are not your values, then don’t—but do ask yourself whether those who have different values really deserve criminalization. If the people with the capacity to birth and/or to raise the next generation, and those close to them who assist their decisions, have to be threatened with criminal penalties, we are in trouble as a country. If abortion is really “murder,” a lot of people in this country are “murderers,” including in many, many cases the people who lovingly raised you. After Roe, the hypocrisies of so-called “pro-life” policymaking are exposed as never before. These hypocrisies are being exposed to a population of greater diversity of opinion than ever before in this country. We will create something better.