By Monica Hesse / The Washington Post
So they did it, finally. A campaign decades in the making to overturn abortion rights in America came to fruition on Friday at 10:10 a.m. Eastern time.
“Hey hey, ho ho, Roe v. Wade has got to go,” antiabortion activists had been yelling outside a barricaded Supreme Court, and then, all of a sudden, it went. A hush fell on the crowd as news of the decision trickled to the street, and then the hush turned to a cheer, and that’s what it looks like when rights are stripped away from women around the country, I guess. A hideous little party.
Here’s what I found myself thinking about while I watched those buoyant antiabortion activists; so many of whom were young women who branded themselves the “Post-Roe Generation” without yet being weighed down by life experiences to know what that meant. I found myself thinking about life experiences. Not about the abortions women will no longer be able to have, but about the choices they will no longer be able to make.
The first abortion I didn’t have was in college. My period was five days late — at random, it turns out, due to stress from exams, blah blah blah — but in the five days before it arrived, I’d already Googled the nearest Planned Parenthood. The second abortion I didn’t have was in my 30s. Birth control had been religiously employed, and yet there they were: two pink lines and a future I’d never planned. While I tried to warm to the idea of motherhood, nature resolved the situation in the form of a miscarriage.
The third abortion I didn’t have was my daughter. That time, everything was planned. I was ready, and the reason I knew I was ready was that I didn’t think about an abortion, I thought about a baby name.
As America waited like a rabbit in headlights for this decision to come down (and it turns out what we got was pretty much what the draft opinion had said we were going to get: Samuel Alito in all of his caustic, 19th-century glory), I heard from a lot of women about their abortions. But I heard from just as many women about the abortions they didn’t have. The options that were open to them. The choices they knew were theirs to choose, and the futures that unfurled because of that.
A friend was 16. First boyfriend, first broken condom. She went to her mother even before going to the drugstore for a pregnancy test. Her mother immediately said, “You don’t have to have a baby, we’ll get this taken care of.” The test turned out to be negative, but 20 years later, she still remembers her mother’s calm reassurance and the flood of relief that came with it.
Another friend told me about going to the doctor for an ultrasound in her second trimester. The sonographer’s lips pursed into a frown instead of a smile, then she scurried off to find a doctor. While my friend waited for more tests, she thought about how she might need to end a wanted pregnancy, because continuing it in those circumstances would have been, in her mind, unspeakably cruel.
False alarm, though. The baby was fine. She didn’t have to make the terrible decision, but she later told me that the only mercy she could find while waiting for those test results was in the idea that the terrible decision would at least have been hers.
“It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” Alito wrote. He meant that the issue should be taken away from the Supreme Court, but what it actually means is that the issue of women’s uteruses will be taken away from women.
Women have been talking to me about their own pasts. Back when they were still virgins, back when they were in high school and health class was displaying condoms rolled onto bananas, back when horny students were encouraged to take optimistic purity pledges. These then-girls weren’t even having sex yet, but abortion still existed in their minds as the second half of an if/then equation. If you got pregnant, then …
I don’t think many men realize that; that abortion is a procedure many women have considered at least once in their lives, even if considering it meant deciding they would never do it.
The point was not having an abortion, Justice Alito. The point was knowing that your life didn’t have to be ruined. The point was that if you became accidentally pregnant, you didn’t have to give up the scholarship, the graduate program, the cross-country move. You didn’t have to be trapped in a miserable relationship by the financial needs of a baby. A single mistake didn’t have to punish you forever.
For some abortion opponents, this freedom was their primary argument for reversing Roe v. Wade. The most common word that I hear abortion opponents use when discussing the issue is “consequences,” as in, “If a girl has sex, she should be prepared to accept the consequences.”
But access to abortion didn’t provide a life without consequences. It provided a life in which consequences were proportional.
Women have been talking to me about their children. How much they love them. How important it is that they had chosen to have them. These women became pregnant in a time and place in which they could have chosen to end their pregnancies. But sometimes it’s the appearance of an exit ramp that makes you realize you want to stay on the highway after all. Sometimes a person needs to know they don’t have to in order to realize how much they want to.
This is what was lost on the giddy steps of the Supreme Court on Friday morning. This is what is lost in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It’s not the abortions we would have had. It’s the abortions we wouldn’t have had. We are losing the idea that we were the best stewards of our own bodies and our own futures; our right to self-determination. We are losing the reassuring voices of our pragmatic mothers saying, You don’t have to do this. And we are losing the freedom to decide to do it anyway, if that’s what we want.
The abortions we didn’t have are as formative as the ones we did. They are the roads we took. They are the roads we took without ever dreaming that all other roads would be taken from us.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section, who frequently writes about gender and its impact on society. She’s the author of several novels, most recently, “They Went Left.”