Woman as Reason: Abortion rights at crossroads

July 1, 2021

From the July-August 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Terry Moon

By now you may be one of the hundreds of thousands who listened to Lake Highlands High School Valedictorian Paxton Smith’s graduation speech where she decided to talk about abortion rights rather than her school-approved comments on the effect of the media. Her immediate impetus was a new bill signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott that outlaws abortion after six weeks for every reason except the life of the woman. It also opened the door for anybody to sue any and everyone involved in the entire abortion process—from mothers driving their daughters to get the procedure to janitors who clean the clinic where it takes place, not to mention the woman having the procedure.

TERRIFIED AND OUTRAGED

Clinic defenders standing in front of the parking lot to the “Pink House,” the last abortion clinic left in the state of Mississippi. The case now before the U.S. Supreme Court was brought by the Pink House director to challenge a Mississippi bill that would have outlawed abortion before a woman could even know she was pregnant. Photo: The Pink House.

What struck me was Smith’s outrage because it mirrored that of generations of women, including those like me who came of age when abortion was illegal. Then, most of us who were older than 18 knew at least one friend or acquaintance who either had or wanted to have an abortion; and we had felt the fear of having to answer the question of what would we do if we became pregnant when we didn’t want to be.

Smith put it this way: “I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I’m raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter.” She expressed her outrage at a bill that outlaws abortion before a woman would even know she was pregnant when she said: “And so, before they have the time to decide if they are emotionally, physically, and financially stable enough to carry out a full-term pregnancy, before they have the chance to decide if they can take on the responsibility of bringing another human being into the world, that decision is made for them by a stranger. A decision that will affect the rest of their lives has been made by a stranger!” And that “stranger” in this case is a man who will never face the questions that Paxton Smith and every woman, pregnant when she doesn’t want to be, faces.

Smith ended her talk by rightly calling the attack on abortion rights a “war on my body and…my rights,” and “a war on the rights of your mothers…your sisters…a war on the rights of your daughters. We cannot stay silent.”

What gives hope for the future was not only Paxton’s talk but the reaction to it by her audience of students and parents. There was some applause during the talk itself, but when it ended there was a roar of cheering and clapping.

For years abortion rights activists have bemoaned the fact that many women, including those who live at a time when abortion has always been legal (although it is now becoming almost impossible for many to obtain) have not comprehended the fact that the legal right to abortion is in serious danger of being overturned. That the right to control our own bodies can be stripped away from us “by a stranger.” Smith’s talk shows that this ignorance is in the past.

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take a case where they could rule on whether it is legal for the state of Mississippi to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, most court watchers agreed that they did so in order to either gut Roe v. Wade (the case that legalized abortion) or overturn it completely. They did this despite the fact that the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that states cannot ban abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb—about 23 weeks of pregnancy, a decision that has been upheld although tested numerous times by anti-abortion fanatical laws passed in Republican-controlled legislatures.

WOMEN IN POLAND, ARGENTINA SHOW THE WAY

Perhaps Republicans think that this must be a good thing for them—helping them to win votes in the culture war when they continue to be bankrupt with regard to health and childcare, labor rights, anti-discrimination legislation—in short, anything that could help Americans who don’t fall into the rich-white-man category. But voices like Paxton Smith’s show they may well be in for a rude—and extremely timely—awakening. Hundreds of thousands of women have shown us the way in Ireland, Poland, and Argentina: they would bring down a government that would try to “dehumanize” (Paxton’s word) them by having “the autonomy over your own body taken from you.”

Paxton characterized what Governor Greg Abbott did as a “war” against women and “a problem that can’t wait.” The anti-abortion, anti-women reactionary movement is led by Republicans who think they are on the brink of a victory with a Supreme Court now packed with anti-abortion zealots. Time will tell if they are right, or if they have unleashed millions of American women who, like Paxton Smith, will flood the streets and demonstrate that control of one’s own body is something so fundamental to being human that we are willing to overthrow a government to create it.

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