The Roe judgment is not about the rights of states. It’s about power and control | Derecka Purnell

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I learned about Dobbs, the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey, in a room full of black women in Boston. One of them interrupted a panel discussion at the conference and made the announcement. Gasping, moaning and mumbling followed. I ran outside and cried briefly on the phone while passing the news to loved ones. The situation is deeply unjust. Not only did the court erase federal protections for abortion rights and access, but Judge Clarence Thomas also called for the review and quashing of other key court decisions protecting privacy rights, sexual intercourse and same-sex marriage.

I wish I could say something like, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when this happened.” But I’m honestly not sure. I casually argued against abortion for a few years in college. At the time, I was sadly convinced by social media accounts that Planned Parenthood was a eugenic plot to kill black babies and destroy black families. While most abortion recipients are white women, black women disproportionately terminate their pregnancies. Because I could easily point to ways in which the state failed to protect poor black people and perpetuated the violence, I initially found the arguments against abortion to protect black life convincing.

When I was younger my ideas about justice, religion and harm were nascent and confused. Then I learned more. I studied and met black women who fought for full reproductive justice: the right to have children, the right not to have children, and the right to parenthood. I was no longer convinced by the crooked claim I have repeatedly used that “only 1% of rapes result in pregnancy”. That statistic didn’t match much of my reality anyway. It did not capture verbal “consensual” but unwanted sex. Nor did it reflect my conversations with peers who assumed rape could only be committed by a stranger, not a lover. Or friends who initially saw sexual assault as a spectacular attack, not someone who takes off a condom without their knowledge or consent. The statistic didn’t even match conservative estimates of the data: The National Institutes of Health reported that pregnancy rape occurred with “significant frequency” and resulted in an estimated 32,000 pregnancies per year.

The moment in that black women’s room in Boston reminded me of a short sermon a black female pastor delivered in my church when the Dobbs version was leaked weeks ago. She said: “If the real problem were babies, then all babies would get health care when they got here. When it came to children, no child would ever go hungry. No child would lack an education. No child would miss clothes. No parent would miss a bottle feeding.” The most commonly reported reasons why women choose to terminate their pregnancies are socioeconomic, including interference in work, education, and caring for other dependents.

Lawmakers could pass legislation that would allow people to give birth and afford children, including universal basic income, paid parental leave, universal childcare and free college. Republicans and Democrats could support total student debt forgiveness so that employees don’t have to choose between saving for children or paying off loans. Most importantly, if they cared about protecting life, they could fight to maintain and extend the right to bodily autonomy so that people can make the most important decisions for their bodies and lives.

But the anti-abortion wings of the Supreme Court, Congress and the state legislature are doing everything they can to ensure equitable conditions for pregnancy and childbirth, nor to raise children. This group takes positions and supports policies that prohibit racial justice education; bans trans children from sports teams and bathrooms; refuses dollars for health care and unemployment; and expand the police force. These are all attempts to limit physical autonomy and create hostile living conditions in order to maintain racial, gender, sexual and economic hierarchies.

Dobbs is about more than states’ rights and “protecting life”. It’s about power and control.

I fully understand the tendency to blame the Supreme Court logic on Christianity or societal misogyny. Right evangelicalism is a train that carries homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and more around the world. However, beyond the social awareness of these interlocking forms of oppression, we must understand that decisions such as Dobbs also lead to material losses beyond individual privacy rights and bodily autonomy. Institutions and individuals benefit from our loss of agency.

Individuals use pregnancy and children to control the social and physical lives of their partners. I remember praying with my dear friend in college before she had a secret abortion because if her boyfriend had found out she was pregnant, he wouldn’t have let her out of the relationship. She wasn’t alone. Her ability to make a decision about her pregnancy allowed her to make the best decision about her safety, removing a lever of control from her partner. What should people in Missouri like them do now that the state has passed a total ban on abortion? Call the police charged with enforcing the criminalization of abortion?

Institutionally, companies benefit from our loss of physical autonomy. My sister, who wanted a child, was fired when she became pregnant. Hundreds of thousands of women report pregnancy discrimination every year, including their employer’s refusal to meet health-related needs. Companies will prioritize, prioritize and pay those who cannot or do not want to become pregnant to minimize disruption to corporate profits. Although technically illegal, no one has the right to call the police on their employer to enforce this law. The police protect companies, not employees. Instead, people who have been discriminated against must undergo a reporting process that can discourage making complaints. While we must now fight to change labor relations, we must protect the right to physical autonomy to navigate our current social realities.

In either case – forcing pregnancy by restricting access to abortion and creating hostile conditions to discourage pregnancy – leaves people of childbearing potential in a precarious position, subject to the whims of others. Or, as black women in my family would say, “damn if you do, damn if you don’t.” What lessens the blow of damnation is maximizing our ability to choose the best course of action for our lives, while minimizing the oppressive terrain we traverse.

This is exactly why communities of color and radical feminists are fighting not just for reproductive rights, but for full reproductive justice. Safe access to abortion is one tile on the floor. The paradigm and practice are committed to a full range of political, organizational and societal changes that increase individual agency and institutional support regarding reproductive bodily autonomy. Today, I hope we support the powerful immediate responses that give people access to birth control and abortion who want and need it now. This may include learning about reproductive justice, donating to grassroots abortion funds, and organizing free and accessible telehealth prescriptions. In the long run, we need to take the power away from non-democratic institutions like the Supreme Court to make unethical, life-changing decisions for our society, and fight for truly progressive communities and institutions to deliver the care we all deserve.

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