The overturning of Roe v. Wade shook the country in a way that is hard to compare with any other sociopolitical change. America today screams in pain and seethes with rage. And it will only get worse.
First, let’s clarify the legal status of abortion in America. On Friday, June 24, as publicly predicted after a draft of the court opinion was leaked several weeks ago, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Contrary to the simplified explanations circulating on the internet, this does not mean, at least for now, that there will be a ban on abortions throughout the U.S. But termination of pregnancy is no longer a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Until now, each of the 50 states had to provide its residents with some form of access to abortion. Many of them still limited the right to a minimum by reducing the number of clinics, conducting inspections of pharmacies, removing sex education programs from schools and prohibiting the distribution of leaflets on pharmacological abortions, for example. However, theoretically, the right to an abortion could not be denied anywhere.
Abortion. America Divided Forever
The Supreme Court decision removes this restriction on the state. In other words, abortion issues, like much of education, traffic regulations and access to marijuana, have changed from being a federal matter to one before the states, which are now allowed to regulate abortion procedures under their own laws.
In practice, the U.S. split in two on Friday. Liberal states such as California, New York, Nevada and Oregon not only maintain the right to abortion but also offer access to women from other parts of the country. Others states, such as Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio and Oklahoma, prohibit abortion in virtually all cases. Soon, North Dakota, Mississippi and Georgia will also ban abortion. It is not yet known what Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska and Virginia will do.
The fact is, however, that in a few weeks abortion may be banned in as many as 30 of the 50 states. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about how equally civil rights are protected in the entire country. Thus Ronald Brownstein, a columnist for The Atlantic, called his essay on cultural divisions overseas “America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good.”
This division was particularly evident at the Women’s Health Center in Charleston, West Virginia, after the June 24 decision. The employees of the facility — medical consultants, secretaries, educators — had one task. As reported by Associated Press reporter Leah M. Willingham, the clinic canceled nearly 70 abortions planned for the coming weeks, including those that were to take place on Friday.
Willingham tweeted that women reacted very differently, but none of them calmly. Some burst into tears, some were appalled, and others simply did not understand why they could not have the scheduled procedure that had been legal for 50 years. That is, their entire lives and most of their mothers’ lives. Employees referred women to Abortionfinder.org, which, after entering personal information, including zip code and week of pregnancy, finds the nearest clinic that is still operating legally. This is where the offer for West Virginia residents ends at the moment.
Stockpiling Pills. The US Has Gone Back in Time
There were plenty of similar scenes throughout the country. The New York Times reported on panic in states where the future of abortion is uncertain. In Arkansas, Katie Thomas, 42, immediately purchased abortion pills for her 16-year-old daughter. The girl is not pregnant but, as her mother says, “Just the thought of something happening to my daughter, whether by force or by her choice, and there’s an unwanted pregnancy, I want to be able to handle that.” She added, “If I need to handle that on my own, then I will.” Abigail Carroll, the 22-year-old founder of Abortion Access Nashville, is also quoted urging women not to stockpile Plan B, one of the most popular abortion pills, so that “those who need the pills now can obtain them.”
In states where the abortion ban took effect immediately, there was also drama given the enormous sacrifice women had to make when trying to terminate their pregnancies just before the Supreme Court decision. At a clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas, 17 treatments were scheduled for Friday. Director Lori Williams, told NPR that some of the patients came from as far as Oklahoma or Texas. Some of them got calls from the clinic on their way to the procedure. Williams said she could hear crying, rage and hysteria on the phone. A 21-year-old woman, who spoke to New York Times reporters on condition of anonymity, commented on the change of reality vividly: “When I went to bed on Thursday after making an appointment for an abortion in July, everything looked modern. On Friday, I woke up in the world before 1973.”
The war for the reproductive rights of American women also has a generational and class dimension. The Washington Post drew attention to these aspects, quoting, among others, 21-year-old Washington resident Isabel Wottowa. She is a recent college graduate who works as a hostess. She said that she has “been better,” although she is not afraid of being denied access to abortion. She is more concerned about the situation of people in a worse financial situation. “Growing up, I was told that was the way things used to be and now things are better. So being told that things are worse and they’re going to get worse is a pretty scary thing,” she said. On the other side of the argument stands 25-year-old Kara Zupkus, an anti-abortion activist. She and young conservative Americans similar to her call themselves the “post-Roe generation” and are now rejoicing. “It was such a relief hearing the decision, but one I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” Zupkus said.
However, such voices are the minority. First, America is furious, and rage fills streets across the nation. In Arizona, a huge demonstration against the Supreme Court’s decision was held outside the state government building in the capital city of Phoenix. There were clashes with the police, who used tear gas, including on groups with children. A similar protest was held in Los Angeles, where police overpowered dozens of people marching along the side of a downtown bypass road.
In Kentucky and Florida, the fight has already shifted to the courts. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state, asserting that local regulations restricting access to abortion are unconstitutional. The ACLU has organized protests across the country, offering free logistical and legal support. The organization also spoke out about the Supreme Court’s decision at the weekend pride parade in New York, one of the largest events of this type in the world. Traditionally a great celebration for the LGBTQ community, and virtually the entire city, the parade turned into a march of frustration and anger. Disappointment and even weeping broke through the noise of cheerful music. Participants told NBC they would continue to fight but that they had increasingly less strength because the U.S. “take[s] a few steps forward and then 10 steps back.”
The Bishop Is Happy, the Conservative Media Triumphs
The anger spilled beyond the U.S. Protests in front of American embassies were organized around the world. Several hundred people gathered in front of the diplomatic mission in Dublin, Ireland, over the weekend, most of them armed with pink and rainbow flags, banners calling for the fight for women’s rights and declarations of support. This is extremely symbolic. On the Green Island, until recently ultra-Catholic and conservative, abortion is now fully legal, as is gay marriage.
World leaders responded with a mixture of shock and contempt. You could sense from their remarks the triumph and pride in the fact that in their countries, women have more rights than in a country that considers itself the home of civil liberties and the main country tht exports to the world. French President Emmanuel Macron called abortion a “fundamental right for all women,” one that “we must protect.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “I’ve always believed in a woman’s right to choose and I stick to that view and that is why the U.K. has the laws that it does.” “I can’t imagine the fear and anger you are feeling right now,” Justin Trudeau tweeted to American women. Official statements from Spain and Denmark sounded similar. Only Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, was pleased with the Supreme Court decision.
Republicans, in turn, are ecstatic. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck was so excited he almost fell off his chair during his live radio program, and Fox News star Laura Ingraham revealed that “her prayers were answered.”
The mood in other media was completely different. CNN and MSNBC interrupted programs to comment live on the Supreme Court decision. The editors of Politico reported on a sizable number of experts who criticized the anti-abortion movement. The New York Times published a special edition of its daily podcast, The Daily, which gathered dramatic reports of women from all over the country, terrified and unsure of the future. Over the weekend in the U.S., abortion was not only the main topic but sometimes the only one.
What’s next? We don’t know. Abortion tourism has already become a reality. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles estimate that as many as 16,000 women living in other parts of the country will come there to terminate pregnancies by the end of the year. For now, travel to other states for an abortion is legal, although some states are trying to restrict access to such interstate procedures, and especially to pharmacological abortion. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has announced that her state will prohibit sending pills by mail, which will likely put South Dakota on the path of a long and arduous legal battle with the federal government. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would not “touch” the right to contraception. Lawmakers in Missouri, in turn, want to explicitly ban women from going anywhere else for an abortion. Other regions are looking for loopholes in existing laws. For example, they want to ban certain pills by questioning their safety and engaging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced that such lawsuits violate federal law and will be dismissed, but the mere idea of such cases shows where conservative America is heading.
For some, even Friday’s Supreme Court decision is not enough. The National Right to Life group, an anti-abortion organization, is drafting a bill that would classify termination of pregnancy as a federal crime. In practice, this would mean a total ban on abortion in the entire country. The dominant belief is that conservatives have an appetite for more. Contraception, sex education, same-sex marriage, maybe even divorce — the rights to all of these are in question. Contrary to what America’s motto says, the United States in 2022 can be described in many ways but certainly not as the land of the completely free.