life after roe

The Limits of Privilege

The new abortion regime is going to affect everyone.

Outside a Los Angeles courthouse on March 3. Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP
Outside a Los Angeles courthouse on March 3. Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

In 2015, the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “We will never see a day when women of means are not able to get a safe abortion in this country.” If you have paid attention to mainstream progressive politics in recent years, you have likely heard some version of this message: that privileged women — middle- and upper-class women, cis women, white women — are not going to experience much of a change to their circumstances when Roe v. Wade goes. In September 2021, on the day Texas’s sweeping anti-abortion law, SB8, went into effect, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts asserted that “when abortion is illegal, rich women still get abortions. Women with resources still get abortions.” It has become common wisdom, so much so that a December article on Bloomberg Law confidently predicted that “restrictive abortion laws will have little effect on professional women or those in their orbit.”

There are a lot of very good reasons to point out the structural inequities that indeed make restrictions on reproductive-health care racist and particularly punishing for the poor. Abortion bans, as Warren says, hurt “the most vulnerable among us,” a statement that is rooted in extremely correct racial and class analysis. It perfectly sums up the circumstances of the past 40 years, when the Hyde Amendment and state restrictions made abortion all but inaccessible to many poor, Black, brown, immigrant, and Indigenous communities while middle-class white people could feel assured about the umbrella protection of Roe.

There is also an understandable desire among advocates for abortion access to convey a crucial and salient reality: that people of all classes will continue to get abortions, just as they have always gotten abortions throughout history when the procedures were both legal and illegal. And that’s important to know, to make clear, that the reasoning behind abortion bans is a lie. Bans do not stop abortions from happening. Rather, they are meant to punish people for asserting control over their bodies, lives, and families, and the people who get punished more cruelly and regularly in this country have always been people who are not white and not wealthy. The drive to make this point is also a reminder that white, privileged women’s experiences are not at the center of this ongoing injustice.

But as we teeter on the threshold of the post-Roe world, it’s worth considering that the message that privileged women will be just fine is inaccurate and that its repetition, while well meaning, is counterproductive to the task of readying an unprepared public for massive and terrifying shifts on the horizon. It’s worth pointing out that it is simply not true that the reproductive options of white, middle-class, and even wealthy people are going to remain the same. Because while circumstances will certainly be graver and more perilous for the already vulnerable, the reality is that everything is about to change, for everyone, in one way or another, and to muffle that alarm is an error, factually, practically, and politically.

The question before us is not only about who can get safe abortion care. The fear arising from recollections of a world before Roe centered on the ability to access surgical procedures, many of which were performed at great risk to the bodies and fertility of those people who sought them out. Access to abortion providers will certainly be a part of the future picture, and many will need to travel across state lines in order to see those medical professionals. A post-Roe future will also certainly involve some people seeking abortion turning to dangerous self-remedies that will result in injury and death. But we are not going to make a full return to the era of back alleys and women bleeding out on motel-room floors.

Today, unlike in the early 1970s, we have mifepristone and misoprostol, pills that are available by mail and are safe and effective in inducing abortions, which are then indistinguishable from miscarriages. Lots of people in lots of places can end their pregnancies in medically safe ways that do not entail dirty coat hangers. However, now that there are widespread means of delivering abortifacients, anti-abortion crusaders are intent on criminalizing their use. Which means the frightening new questions are not simply about access but about whether people who take these pills, or the people who provide them, will be prosecuted, fined, and put in jail for doing so. In any criminal-justice context, it is true that people of color and poor people will still suffer more, but do not underestimate anger at abortion seekers of all races — including white women of privilege — who attempt to assert independence and reproductive autonomy.

For the really rich, it is true: Traveling to get an abortion and evading prosecution will more or less be a cinch. But the chasm between really rich and everyone else gets deeper every day, and it is simply not true that a suburban white mom of three in Missouri or the teenage daughter of well-off Christian conservatives in Alabama will be in a position to get the abortion she needs when she needs it with ease and without risk to herself, her family, or the people willing to help her. Even crossing to another state to obtain an abortion may entail legal jeopardy as states consider various means to prohibit and criminalize abortion travel.

It’s going to be a shock. Precisely because of racial and class disparities in every area of American life, white middle-class women are used to having certain kinds of systemic support: hospitals where they can feel cared for, responsive physicians. Those supports can no longer be taken for granted. To consider even the most cynical caricature of white middle-class womanhood, the Karens who are used to calling the manager when they have a complaint, the reality is going to be that, in many places, there will no longer be a manager to call. And if there is, he might report you to authorities. The choices that people, even people of means, make about how to end pregnancies are going to require calculations they have rarely had to do before: about their own risks of criminal prosecution and about state-enforced systems that are there not to work on their behalf but to limit and punish their choices.

And don’t be fooled: While scrutiny will be sharpest on poor and Black and brown people, women and people with uteruses of every race are going to be questioned not only about their unintended pregnancies but about the miscarriages of their wanted pregnancies. In states where post-Roe trigger bans begin at conception, various forms of birth control — including IUDs — could be considered abortifacients, and there will be strenuous attempts to make them inaccessible or illegal. For similar reasons, people undergoing IVF treatments may find that their embryos have been granted rights they did not previously have.

Those who live in states with fewer restrictions, even in states that have wisely strengthened protections in recent years, will certainly have an easier time. But their circumstances will be changed too, by the influx of patients from other parts of the country. Wait times and, with them, pressures on viability limits will increase. Moreover, resting easy on the idea of a patchwork of safer states assumes Republicans will not find a way to enact a federal legislative ban. For years, I’ve been told that will never happen. For years, I’d also been told that Roe would never fall.

In time, abortion’s illegality is going to affect everyone: you, your friends, your loved ones, your community, your kids, and your parents. It’s going to affect you if you or someone you know wants an abortion, and it’s frankly going to affect you even if you don’t.

And however well intentioned or important it is to acknowledge the decades of disproportionate and destructive damage abortion restrictions under Roe have done to poor families of color, the recent mainstream emphasis on the notion that some Americans will come out of the end of Roe unscathed is a strategic mistake.

If these past years with COVID have taught us anything, it’s that if you tell middle-class white people that they will be fine, they will not give a rat’s ass about anyone else. And so this message, intended to engender empathy and provoke action and commitment, may instead have been an anesthetizing one. It may have permitted middle-class white people, with their significant political clout, to sleepwalk comfortably — as they have through all of Roe’s existence — into the waiting jaws of illegality.

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