The Lives They Want You to Forget

A “Baby Lives Matter” flag at the 2022 March for Life. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Every year, on the eve of Roe v. Wade’s anniversary, anti-abortion protesters from all across the country swarm the capitol in the annual March for Life. The goal is always the same — a call to outlaw abortion across the United States — but in 2022, it looks like the organizers may finally get their wish: With two challenges to Roe on the Supreme Court’s docket, its conservative majority looks poised to take an axe to abortion access across the country. For such an auspicious year, the march’s organizers chose an auspicious theme: “Equality begins in the womb.” Speakers at Friday’s rally drew comparisons between their movement and the movements for racial and gender justice, citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Anti-choice rhetoric routinely runs this way, borrowing language from the other side and standing it up in front of a fun-house mirror. For example: The Christian crisis-pregnancy center opening across the street from an abortion provider, posing as a medical clinic even as it presses medically unfounded warnings about breast cancer into patients’ hands. The comparisons of abortion to slavery and to the Holocaust, that ignore the “pro-life” movement’s segregationist origins and open ties to white nationalism. The Supreme Court brief arguing that pregnancy discrimination laws and paid family leave (a policy Republicans are fighting at a national level) mean that the modern woman can have it all; she doesn’t need to choose between career and family anymore. In the 49 years since Roe, the anti-abortion camp has perfected a doctrine that nods to patients only when necessary, nominally accounting for their wellbeing before shunting them out of the picture in favor of the fetus. Activists want every pregnancy to result in a birth. That means erasing the patient from the frame, even as they saddle that person with extraordinary responsibility.

People get abortions for all kinds of reasons. There’s the person who does not want to be pregnant, or the person who — because of finances, or education, or work, or obligation to care for another family member, or some other factor — does not want to be pregnant right now. Then there’s the person who really does, like the mother who learns at 20 weeks that giving birth may well kill her and the fetus. There’s the teen to whom birth control and sex ed were never available. There’s the person who was raped, or whose partner terrorized them, for whom sex itself was not a choice; even some of the most extreme laws will make exceptions for that patient’s case, an acknowledgment that in certain scenarios, people really should be able to terminate a pregnancy if they want to. But once that admission is out on the table, who gets to say who qualifies and who does not? The only person who knows their own circumstances is the patient in the waiting room.

Behind every example, every statistic, stands a person taking stock of their life. The decades of data that have accumulated since Roe are very clear: Inability to access abortion cements inequality, burdening women — as well as trans and nonbinary people facing unwanted pregnancies — with enormous expenses they can’t necessarily afford at the same time it sidelines them from educational and career advancement. That low-income women of color, many of them already moms, disproportionately shoulder the adverse effects of the pro-life agenda is not a coincidence. But in the eyes of activists outside the clinic, or lobbying state and federal governments, those lives take a back seat to hypothetical futures. The anti-abortion camp hangs its ideology on conditional existence; an embryo, a fetus, a baby that will, for years, remain totally reliant on at least one other person in order to survive.

That tactic is maddening, particularly because it’s transparent. Few things outrank a fetus on the vulnerability scale, which makes it a very useful instrument for playing on emotions. On the signs and pamphlets anti-abortion activists wave outside clinics, photos of dismembered fetuses violently contrast images of healthy infants or hands resting on round third-trimester bellies. In statehouses, like Georgia’s, an embryo becomes a “class of living, distinct person” at just six weeks, though its pea-size form lacks vital organs, not to mention a face. Still, lawmakers shout down doctors, hammering on a “heartbeat” before any heart exists. They attempt to make abortion providers hold funerals for fetuses, and although some politicians may gesture toward the “health of the mother,” she enters the equation only as an abstract if she enters it at all.

Consider the two abortion laws currently sitting in front of the Supreme Court: In oral arguments around Texas’s S.B. 8, patients came up fewer times than I can count on a hand. Nonetheless, S.B.8 has exerted a powerful chilling force on access throughout the state. Most providers have suspended their services while the legal battle continues. And yet only Justice Elena Kagan brought up the concrete impact on women’s lives, reminding an attorney for Texas that “the actual provisions in this law have prevented every woman in Texas from exercising a constitutional right as declared by this court.” To pretend that hasn’t always been the point is dishonest at best.

But anti-abortion legislation relies on factual distortion. In oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi solicitor general Scott G. Stewart reveled in misinformation while asking the Court to overturn, or at least gut, Roe v. Wade. That decision protects abortion access up until viability, around 24 weeks, and explicitly bars states from outlawing the procedure before that point. Mississippi, however, wants to push up the deadline, making it illegal to end a pregnancy after 15 weeks — even when it results from rape or incest. Defending its law, Stewart maligned the millions of “unborn lives” lost to a “brutal” procedure; he threw out medically unfounded statements about “fetal pain,” which doesn’t come into play until after viability. He painted the fetus as “fully human” at a point when no amount of medical intervention could possibly keep it alive outside the womb.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Stewart’s reasoning sounded not unlike the logic his 1973 counterpart, Robert Flowers, then the assistant attorney general of Texas, trotted out in arguing Roe. Whereas his opponent presented the court with recent research and statistics, Flowers rummaged around in his briefcase for whatever random figures might bolster his claim that life begins at conception. In his medieval reckoning, it was “on the seventh day, I think that the heart, in some form, starts beating. On the 20th day, practically all the facilities are there that you and I have.” It’s an overestimate so far off base, I have to guess he actually meant weeks. (At seven days, we are likely talking about a ball of cells called a blastocyst, which hasn’t even implanted yet.) But in Flowers’s mind, gestational distinctions probably didn’t matter much. To him, the central question of the case was: “Is the life of this unborn fetus paramount over the woman’s right to determine whether or not she shall bear a child?” Texas believed that the fetus “has all the potential of achieving,” and therefore deserves all the protection the state offers its fully formed citizens — more, even, if those citizens happen to be involuntarily pregnant. Texas still believes that; so does Mississippi; so do broad swathes of the South and Midwest. But almost half a century ago, the Court came down on the side of scientific fact. The viability line Roe established may be imperfect, but at least it makes logical sense.

In 2022, the lie-based argument seems likely to win. It is depressing, frustrating, disorienting to be sliding backward through time, the ground we’ve gained crumbling under the weight of the louder faction’s manipulative politics. Logic goes out the window too. “If the foetus is a person,” Sally Rooney wrote of Ireland’s near-total abortion ban in 2018, “it is a person with a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen: the foetus may make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body.” Nowhere else does the law demand a person give up or lend out that physical real estate, whether they want to or not: Organ donation, Rooney notes, requires the donor’s voluntary agreement, whereas pregnancy can carry on without it.

The anti-abortion movement treats the fetus with extraordinary deference, heaping importance on keeping it “alive” without considering the life that happens after birth. Right-leaning states bent on winnowing access are the same states unwilling to budget for things like universal child care, paid parental leave; the types of services that allow people to work and parent at the same time. The most common abortion patient is young, lives at or under the poverty line, and may already have at least one kid. Child care costs, on average, $10,000 per year, and if a minimum-wage job brings in less than $20,000, you can do the math. And beside the basic financial reality: What does life look like when the parent isn’t ready or, necessarily, willing? How can you claim concern for any child — for “life” itself — and also wave all those questions away?

I don’t think you can. But then, I’m not sure “unborn lives” were ever the whole point. I think about the male lawmakers (and here I am quoting at least three different Republicans) who openly refer to women as “hosts.” I think about the legislators who would criminalize miscarriage. I think about the men who urge rape victims to view the resulting pregnancies as God’s gift, a silver lining, a purpose. I think about members of the Patriot Front — a neo-Nazi hate group with a stated interest in bolstering white supremacy through the birthrate — joining the crowd at Chicago’s recent March for Life. I think about the literature they handed out, cards that read: “America belongs to its fathers, and it is owed to its sons.” Nauseating, not least because it’s honest.

The Lives They Want You to Forget