I Dream of Bodily Liberation
In Texas, your iPhone might as well be an ankle bracelet. The Guardian recently noted that Texas county courts can subpoena your smartphone’s geolocation history if you are unlucky enough to be sued for aiding and abetting an abortion. The Supreme Court hasn’t decided yet who has standing as a plaintiff in civil lawsuits under SB 8, a law in Texas banning abortions at six weeks gestation, so in theory, anyone could sue you––for example, a prisoner in Arkansas, or a lawyer in Chicago. In this online world, we are constantly watched, but under SB 8, we are explicitly criminalized by the technocratic surveillance state.
In summary, we live in hell.
Before I joined the board of the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire, I did not consider myself a “pro-choice activist.” Frankly, I felt turned off by a movement dominated by white, millennial/middle-aged, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual women in pink pussy hats marching on Washington holding cringey #Resist signs with Gadsden flags shaped like uteruses and effigies of The Handmaid’s Tale that would make Margaret Atwood spontaneously combust. There’s an exclusionary culture within the reproductive rights movement, and it’s by design. Largely dominated by organizations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood, the mainstream political culture of the movement was built by racist, homophobic, ableist eugenicists. While there have been massive strides to reconcile that torrid history with the present-day battle for liberation, there remains a huge amount of work to do on inclusivity and equity within the movement itself.
For many femmes, women, trans, and non-binary people who possess uteruses, the movement for bodily autonomy is one of the earliest political inflection points in which we become acutely aware of our own systemic subjugation, on account of the gender we were assigned. Eventually, you become numb to it. Until it becomes a death sentence.
When I was 17, I lost my health insurance. Suddenly, the oral birth control I took to regulate my period was an out-of-pocket cost. This happened about six months after Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. I had been considering an intrauterine device (IUD), largely as a joke, which now suddenly felt like a serious option—and also a necessity. I say it was a joke because at 17, I had that implicit understanding of my own positionality that you develop with a political consciousness––that as a white woman who did not consistently experience economic precarity I would always have access to abortions in a way Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and impoverished people do not.
I found my way back into the movement that had drawn me into political organizing in the first place. Right as I hit my stride, Roe v. Wade was effectively nullified for 13 million Texans.
Roe v. Wade is a landmark civil rights case that in 1973 put forth a new court precedent—that pregnant people retain their individual bodily autonomy until the point of fetal viability. Something that gets lost in conversations about Roe is that it didn’t just strike down abortion laws—it also guaranteed pregnant people the full suite of civil rights that conservatives have tried to deny them. Without the precedence of Roe, not only can lawmakers outlaw abortion—they can also make it illegal for pregnant people to drink wine, eat sushi, walk on treadmills, or own a microwave.
Roe is situated in a matrix of cases that guarantee marginalized people unenumerated civil rights—gay marriage, birth control, and decriminalizing homosexuality, to name a few. These cases are similar in that they limit the scope of “religious freedom” as it pertains to the state’s right to criminalize individuals for the way they were born. I’m not a betting woman, but I’d imagine the next series of cases to join this catalogue will revolve around the right to gender confirmation surgery and the constitutionality of the death penalty.
Ultimately, Roe is an inherently flawed decision that is entirely inadequate. It’s absurd to think that our greatest civil rights protections in this country are that nine unelected geriatrics interpreted a document written by genocidal colonialist slave-owners as having the interests of subjugated people in mind. But I digress.
Texas’ SB 8 is the worst-case scenario in many ways. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to block via lawsuit. Even before we realized that Justices Amy “Coathanger” Barrett and Samuel Alito would weaponize the shadow docket through a sleight of hand Houdini couldn’t have pulled off, the lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed was, to quote Imani Gandy of Rewire, “bonkers.” Essentially, SB 8 is entirely enforced by civilian vigilantism, so with no clear defendants to name, the plaintiffs decided to sue any member of the judicial system in Texas who may have to enforce this law via civil procedure. That means they basically named every county judge in Texas’ 254 counties and their clerks in their petition. Not only that, but Texas isn’t even the case that we knew could overturn the precedent of Roe—that’s up for oral arguments in December. Dobbs v. Jackson is the case pertaining to Mississippi’s 15-week ban, and it is a unique piece of legislation poised to fully overturn Roe and set off 11 trigger bills in 11 GOP-controlled states.
So… what now?
In terms of the immediate remedy, as strange as it sounds, abortion is not technically fully illegal in Texas. The fun part about cisgender male evangelicals writing legislation to ban abortion is that while they may have a cunning Federalist-society reading of the law, they know next to nothing about how abortions work. You can order an abortion online via Plan C Pills or Aid Access, a Dutch company that directly ships Mifeprex to patients who complete an online intake form. Because the prescribing physician for Texas is a Dutch doctor, there are no grounds to sue her. Thus, if a patient were to obtain a medication abortion via Aid Access and manage their abortion at home, no one could be liable for the civil suit, as the bill explicitly bars the actual patient from being criminalized for obtaining an abortion. Maybe it was hubris or maybe it was sheer idiocy, but ultimately the legislation has an enormous gaping loophole.
There are limitations to self-managed abortion, of course—it is only effective to 12 weeks, and while it’s safer than Tylenol and Viagra, many patients experience discomfort at the prospect of managing their abortion at home, completely divorced from the healthcare apparatus. However, there isn’t a way to fully criminalize self-managed abortion because there is no medical difference between an induced abortion via pills and a natural miscarriage. You can put away your coat hanger.
Like many forms of criminalization, surveillance, and subjugation, abortion bans are rooted in white supremacy. Renee Bracey Sherman of We Testify writes: “This is our moment to demand full decriminalization of abortion and the abolishment of all abortion laws. Piecemeal legislation will always leave the most marginalized people without full protections and subject to criminalization.” Not only do abortion bans disproportionately kill Black and Brown women, but their very premise is one of preserving the white ethno-state—one of the primary fodders for anti-abortion activism is the antisemitic and xenophobic conspiracy theory of demographic replacement. It’s no wonder that anti-abortion fanatics utilize the police state as the primary weapon of banning abortion, in service of their overarching goal: to brutalize, criminalize, and dehumanize Black, Brown, queer, trans, immigrant, Jewish, and disabled bodies.
NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, an independent state-based former affiliate of the national organization NARAL, recently came under fire for their statements supporting the defund the police movement. Many (white, older, cisgender female) activists have berated this choice, saying it distracts from the goals of abortion advocacy efforts. To me, NARAL-VA’s holistic and intersectional approach to reproductive justice best exemplifies what abortion politics mean. We will not achieve reproductive justice until we achieve abolition. When we ask for bodily autonomy, we don’t just mean over our uteruses—we mean autonomy from the violence of the state; we mean autonomy over our gender and our sexual experiences; we mean autonomy over our bosses and the liberation of workers; we mean autonomy from the death grip of capitalism; we mean autonomy, full stop. It needs no qualifiers.
My colleague from Colorado, Keshia, put it best: “I’m not fucking asking for my rights—I’m taking them.”