life after roe

The Necessity of Hope

Things are bad. They will get worse. But despair has never been an option.

Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Today is the day that this nation sees, with eyes that are briefly clear, exactly how bad things are, and exactly how bad they will become. No clouds today where I live. Only a stark and chilling truth in a bright blue sky: Roe is overturned, and so is Casey.

The dissent, co-authored by the Supreme Court’s three liberals, is explicit: “Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens.” They write that, in the wake of this decision, “from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A state can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs.”

So that, as they say, is that. Where we are. We can all see it, and so much more: Clarence Thomas, in his concurrence, openly declares that same-sex marriage and contraception are next. Gender-affirming health care, LGBTQ protections, voting rights, labor and environmental regulations — they are all prey to this ravening court and the party of malevolent ideologues and cynical tacticians that stands behind it.

Today also makes indisputable, thanks to Representative Jim Clyburn (who called today’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization “anticlimactic”) and his fellow House Democrats (who had the gall to stand outside the Capitol and sing “God Bless America” as protesters gathered at the Court and troops in riot gear marched to meet them), that those with the most power in the Democratic Party are as inept as their fiercest critics have claimed.

Today is wretched and plain. And it is not the bottom, as many people may feel it is. It will get worse; we will go lower. As the Court’s dissent insists, correctly, “Closing our eyes to the suffering today’s decision will impose will not make that suffering disappear.”

And so, with all this laid out, ugly and incontrovertible, the task for those who are stunned by the baldness of the horror, paralyzed by the bleakness of the view, is to figure out how to move forward anyway.

Because while it is incumbent on us to digest the scope and breadth of the badness, it is equally our responsibility not to despair.

These two tasks are not at odds. They are irrevocably twined. As Dahlia Lithwick wondered just a few weeks ago, after the massacre in Uvalde, another clear and awful day: “What does it mean, the opposing imperative of honoring the feeling of being shattered, while gathering up whatever is left to work harder?”

It means doing the thing that people have always done on the arduous path to greater justice: Find the way to hope, not as feel-good anesthetic but as tactical necessity.

The prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba reminds us that “hope is a discipline.” It is also a political strategy and a survival mechanism. As Kaba has said, “It’s less about ‘how you feel’ and more about the practice of making a decision every day that you’re still gonna put one foot in front of the other, that you’re still going to get up in the morning. And you’re still going to struggle … It’s work to be hopeful.”

I am regularly asked, when I speak to groups in frank terms about the peril in front of us, about the temptation of hopelessness: “How can we keep going when the progress accumulated over our lifetimes has been reversed?” But we go forward because that progress was made against forces that will never stop trying to reverse it.

The failure to communicate that is a failure of our leaders, many of whom came of age in a period of progressive victories that they seemed to believe — due to naïveté or willful blindness — would continue to move in one expansive direction. It is no accident that many who believed this came from or moved into classes of power and privilege, where they could remain insulated from the erosions that have been grinding away this whole time, right under their noses.

This stubborn belief in a kind of Forever Progress has undergirded a political message that there was nothing to worry about. It has prevented a proper understanding of this country’s history and its foundational power imbalances. And now it is the shattering of this belief that pulls people toward despair.

But despair is poison. It deadens people when the most important thing they can do is proceed with more drive and force and openness than they have before. Which is why the work ahead is insisting on hope, behaving as if there is reason for hope, even if you feel, based on the ample available evidence, that there is not.

To be as clear as humanly possible: Insisting on hope does not equal a call to dumb cheer, empty aphorism, and baseless optimism. That is the kind of garbage disregard for reality that landed us here. Fatuous overconfidence is what permitted those in power to tell those with their hair on fire that their fear was theatrical, unhinged, overdramatic.

Which is why we must retain the clarity of today’s horror, and never let anyone tell us that things are better than they are. Start with the presumption that your worst fears reflect reality and then learn from those who are already well acquainted with the world we actually live in. There are plenty of people who have not been blind to this country’s long backward motion, to the fact that restrictions have been tightening and rights have been dismantled.

People who have been staring at these realities have built networks and mechanisms. They run clinics and funds and have experience helping people get the care they need when that care has been denied and obstructed by the state. They have developed the medicines, pioneered the delivery systems, and familiarized themselves with the laws. They need support and money and energy.

One of the people doing this work, Debasri Ghosh, the managing director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said to me in a conversation last week, “Beyond abortion, I have been thinking a lot about how so many of us in this movement, particularly Black and brown and Indigenous folks, have ancestries and histories of resistance. We have this lineage of fighting back against hard-won rights being regressed, fighting back against going backwards. It is important for us to be able to tell those stories much more broadly. And we have to look to that ancestral wisdom to be able to find a path forward.” This is the muscle memory of those who have never had the comfort that their rights would remain intact.

This country’s history has been built on days like today. Bad days. It has shown itself capable of reform. Or rather, its people — those willing to give their lives and every scrap of hope they could muster — have reformed it by force.

So today is surely a day to weep and mourn and rage and be very, very afraid, and to understand that many of us will not live to see today’s calamity reversed. And in so acknowledging, we go forward with the will of those who came before, and those who have never stopped putting one foot in front of another, to some finer tomorrow, distant but always possible.

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The Necessity of Hope