Abortion Has Been Illegal Before, so What is Different Now?

Context of Abortion in Black and White:

*I wrote this article on the end of safe abortion largely for white people who have little or no understanding of Black reproductive history in the US. If you’re Black and I got things wrong, please speak up.

Folks, we’re not going to get a miracle. Roe v. Wade was finished the day Donald Trump was sworn into office. This was a coup fifty years in the making. And it has nothing to do with “saving unborn babies”.

It has to do with racism, folks. It’s the same racism that killed 10 Black people in Buffalo whose only crime was to shop where a white nationalist domestic terrorist went hunting. It has to do with control. It has to do with fear. We built the US on the blood of natives and enslaved Africans, and we haven’t begun to atone. And we are paying for our crimes.

We haven’t dealt with 240 years of crimes against Black and brown folks. Further, we can’t even talk right now without white folks demanding to center ourselves in the narrative or shut the conversation down. And because we can’t talk about them, we can’t keep them from spreading to more and more populations. (Instead of retreating to nothingness in the light of justice).

This ruling turns everyone except the wealthy in the US into livestock. We white folk haven’t been livestock since the concept of “white” was invented. But Black and indigenous people have, and they’ve been trying to warn us. We’re simply joining them in the livestock pens that already existed, for them. And we need to realize that we aren’t special.

History Isn’t That Long Ago, and History is Racist:

In 1995, I wrote my senior thesis in history based on the Slave Narratives, gathered during the Great Depression by the WPA. Notable collectors included Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes were Watching God. The clunky title of my thesis was “The Concept of Family Among Slaves in Missouri”. I swear the title is not my fault. I had to choose a state and a topic, and sit for hours in a room that smelled of dust and old books because the narratives weren’t online yet, making copies. The books were reference books and couldn’t be checked out. So, here’s what that four-month deep dive taught this clueless white woman:

  • The Black family has been deliberately disrupted by state and/or government policies from the beginning of US history to the present.
  • It was standard practice to breed enslaved people to each other and to their white enslavers without regard to choice.
  • Despite these injustices, Black families have always adapted and reinvented themselves in functional ways.
  • The damage to Black families is ongoing and affects Black people physically, emotionally, and economically.
  • Black families have a lot to teach white people about forming and maintaining communities.
  • Black people deserve a respite from being resilient and from teaching our ignorant asses.

Since that time I’ve studied further on the subject. I highly recommend Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts and When Abortion Was A Crime by Leslie J Reagan for further study.

Bodily Autonomy and Abortion Lessons from History:

American Black and Indigenous people are not the only populations to have had their bodily autonomy ignored. However, they are the ones who have had the historical knowledge American white people didn’t listen to as this plot to take away our rights moved along. We shoulda listened. They were telling us. But we thought we were special.

If we’d listened we’d know that:

The science of gynecology is based on experiments on enslaved women who could not give consent. These experiments often caused death or permanent disfigurement. Doctors typically performed these experiments without pain management.

In the 1970s, the US government sterilized a quarter of all Native American women.

Women are still forced to undergo clitoridectomies and have been forced to have lobotomies for the “crime” of having sexual desires in many cultures.

Intersex people are still generally operated on at birth in the United States, often without the parent’s knowledge or consent, to make their external genitals more closely resemble one sex or another.

Children assigned male at birth still routinely get circumcised in many parts of the world.

Forced abortions are and often have been common in cultures around the world.

What the GOP and SCOTUS are Trying to Do:

The GOP has focused on two main goals for the 50 years it has sought to overturn Roe v. Wade. First, it is trying to force people back into binary gender roles, and second, it wants more white babies. The two goals go hand in hand. One way to get more babies is to enforce gender roles.

Because the US is a republic, the fact that the population is gradually diversifying is also a threat to the GOP. In order to keep power, the GOP uses institutional racism as a lever. In this machine, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism work together to keep elites in power.

There are three castes in white supremacy:

  • First, white, male, Christian, and wealthy people make up the leader caste.*
  • Followers are usually white or white-adjacent, kept in line with minor accommodations and privileges, but without wealth or power.
  • Finally, people of color are forced into a heavily policed permanent underclass.

*There are just enough exceptions to each of these rules to provide “plausible deniability” and an illusion of class mobility. See also, tokenism.

The purpose of making more (white) babies and forcing people into rigid gender roles is to uphold this caste system. The purpose of the caste system is to uphold the wealth and power of the elites.

New Tools for an Old Purpose:

Here’s the scariest part: Historically, technically abortion was illegal. BUT, most people didn’t know they were pregnant until the baby “quickened” or moved enough to be felt externally. This happens roughly 15-20 weeks into a pregnancy. If a person missed her period, they would seek help to “bring on their menses” up until quickening. There were no legal penalties and this was a common practice, if unsafe.

Now, our medical technology can know a person is pregnant as soon as the egg has implanted. We walk around with trackers on our phones and speak into listening devices in our home. A modern police state can keep records of when people ovulate and have their periods based on databases on social media and other places. Attempts to flee can be tracked with cameras along almost all driving routes. Attempted abortion will be easy to spot and stop.

History has frequently ignored bodily autonomy. However, history has not ever had the tracking and surveillance tools we have today. Modern technology makes the possibilities for violation of bodily autonomy incredibly easy.

What Will Happen In the Short Term:

  • Gestating people will die preventable deaths.
  • Children will be orphaned.
  • In-vitro fertilization will end
  • More and more states will strip more and more privacy rights.
  • Children will be born to parents who didn’t want them and can’t afford them.
  • More children will end up in foster care for longer terms.
  • The SCOTUS will use this decision to strip more and more privacy rights.
  • Marriage equality may be reversed.
  • HIPAA may be nullified
  • Gay and transgender people may be forced back into the closet or flee the country.
  • The prison industrial complex will thrive.

What Will Happen In the Long Run:

Historically, when income inequality and police states get oppressive enough, peasants revolt. We educated white people in the US like to think of ourselves as the bourgeoisie, but we’re peasants. We’re peasants like our poorer siblings and our siblings of color. And sooner rather than later, this overreach of power by the GOP is going to help more realize it.

Proximity to power has made far too many white people comfortable with “privilege” as a substitute for rights. Privilege is a terrible substitute for rights because it is conditional and can be revoked. White women wearing Handmaids Tale costumes to protest are just waking up to that reality, and their cosplay is annoying the hell out of people with more grounded knowledge.

White women and gestating folks are being treated as livestock for the first time in centuries. And too many of us are acting like “this is the most terrible thing that ever happened”. It’s not, hon. It’s just the most terrible thing that has happened to white folk with uteruses in a long, long time.

If you want to get better at fighting this, if you want to get through this alive and with your sanity intact, your job is to listen to Black and Indigenous folks and other folks of color. Don’t demand that they educate you, don’t “yabbut” at them as they try to help. Just listen. Throughout this post I’ve linked paid and free educational links, many by people of color. Start there.

Activism isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Drink deep from the well and return to the race as often as needed. And remember, human rights are mental health.

Jennifer Liles is the owner and webmistress for Jenni's Space and Responsive Mental Health Services LLC. She is dedicated to mental health and human rights for freaks, geeks, and queer folk. She uses the Jenni's Space label for places where she combines education about, advocacy for, and celebration of mental health and human rights. This information is primarily for neurodiverse people, people with mental health issues, people who are on the queer spectrum, disabled people, and Black and Indigenous and other people of color. There are also discussions for privileged people about privilege and how it intersects with human rights work.