life after roe

Rage, Fear, and Hope Outside the Supreme Court

Photo: Michelle Gustafson

On Friday morning, shortly after 10 a.m., 25-year-old Elizabeth Proctor made the mistake of turning on the TV in her Washington, D.C., hotel room while getting ready for a museum event rescheduled from the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearby in a different hotel, three middle-aged social workers from Michigan were listening to a Department of Health and Human Services official give a speech when their phones buzzed.

On an Amtrak train headed toward the U.S. Capitol to attend a conference, 27-year-old novelist Iman Hariri-Kia was looking at social media on her phone, when she, too, caught her breath at history in the making: The Supreme Court had just overturned nearly 50 years of precedent guaranteeing the constitutional right to an abortion.

These women abandoned their commitments, and instead headed to the federal courthouse to join hundreds of other protesters gathering to express their rage, fear, and desperation over the fall of Roe v. Wade. For so many of the people sweating in the crowd that morning and for hours into the night, this decision is not just political; it’s personal.

“I have family members who have been abused,” Proctor said, through tears. To her, the end of Roe means the end of reproductive rights for rape victims. It also made her think of her grandmother, who had been terrified to give birth at 17. Proctor lives in San Diego, but grew up in the tiny Texas town of Bowie, where she said many young women in her community were expected to marry and give birth right away. “I’m terrified that I’m 25 and having to deal with this,” she said.

The social workers — Samantha Carducci, Marla J. Edwards Wheeler, and Jennifer Heckendorn — were also thinking of the people who will face pregnancies conceived in difficult and dangerous situations, like the women they serve regularly. “We’re very angry, because we’re all old enough to know and remember the history of access to abortion and how women fought back in the ’50s to have access to health care,” Carducci said. “We understand that poor women and women that are Black and brown are going to pay the most for this repeal today. And that’s why we’re here.”

“We’re here for our daughters, as well,” Heckendorn added. “We’re here for all the young women that we will ever have contact with in our work.”

Jacklyn Pearlman, 27, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, wore a shirt reading “Abortion Is Healthcare. I Am a Mother by Choice.” She held her 7-year-old daughter’s hand, and in the other lifted a simple cardboard sign reading, “TERM LIMITS NOW,” alluding to a proposal to end lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices. “We came out today because I wanted to fight for my daughter’s right to reproductive health,” Pearlman said. “Also, my mother had an abortion and so did my sister-in-law, and it was the right choice for them at the time. My sister-in-law was very young when she had an abortion, and my mother had one because we were poor and we couldn’t afford another child.”

Pearlman, her daughter, and her husband were among many families joining a diverse crowd of all ages and races on the lawn in front of the Supreme Court. They talked openly about abortion and reproductive freedom. They chanted, shouted, offered bottles of water to strangers, laughed about clever protest signs, made plans to get out the vote in the upcoming midterm elections and to donate to local abortion funds.

Hariri-Kia was grateful to be communing in this place, in this moment. “I came straight here from Union [Station] because I was so devastated and frustrated, and I knew that organizing would give me a sense of hope,” she said. “And I wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people who are fighting back.”

Of course, not everyone in the Friday crowd was like-minded. A group of victorious and joyful anti-abortion advocates had gathered in the area, but considerably dwindled by late evening, when small pockets of them remained playing music and displaying a bloody-fetus banner. Periodically, abortion-rights protesters would stop by these pockets to scream at anti-abortion advocates.

It was an overwhelming scene for 18-year-old Victoria Baker from northern Virginia, who started identifying as “pro-life” during her sophomore year in high school. She said she understood the anger being directed toward her. “Fundamentally, if you don’t believe that a life in the womb is a human life worthy of protecting, then you would think this was just a restriction on women,” Baker said. “But really, if you understand life in the womb as being life worth protecting, then it is life worth protecting.” Some of the young anti-abortion advocates like Baker talked about wanting to reach common ground with abortion-rights advocates, to work together to expand health care and social programs.

At the mention of this idea of trying to forge an alliance now, Erin Matson, the co-founder and executive director of the abortion-rights activist group Reproaction, stopped crying. Her face turned hard. “That is unspeakable,” Matson said. “The anti-abortion movement is seeking to put more people in jail for abortion, miscarriage, and pregnancy. There is no end to what they seek; there is no common ground.”

But advocates on both sides of the continuing debate on abortion rights, and reproductive rights more broadly, agree on one thing: The fight is nowhere near over.

“We’re going to keep on keeping on,” said Mark Lee Dickson, the director of Right to Life of East Texas who has been spreading the concept of “sanctuary cities for the unborn” and helped pave the way for Texas’s abortion ban. “Roe v. Wade being overturned does not mean abortion’s outlawed coast to coast. It means that we’re going to have to go state to state and make sure that every state has protections for the unborn. If we have to do that city by city, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Atong Chan, a 22-year-old political-science major at Keene State College in New Hampshire, is ready to take the fight for the right to an abortion beyond the ballot box. “They’re disenfranchising so many people, especially Black women, and as a Black woman, I have never felt so scared of existing,” Chan said. She has a clear message to send lawmakers: “If you guys are actually willing to do something, do it now, because we’re not going to take any of your bullshit anymore.” She’s counting down the days until she turns 25 and can run for Congress herself. “I will fight an incumbent at this point. This is my right as an American, and I will take their jobs. I will.”

Rage, Fear, and Hope Outside the Supreme Court