The evening after the Supreme Court announced its decision to dismantle reproductive rights in America, my husband and I joined with other dismayed citizens who were converging on the central plaza of the small Californian city we had recently moved to. It was a sweltering evening, but despite the heat and despite the lack of advance warning about when—or even if—the Dobbs Decision would be released, there was still a sizable crowd. Several hundred women, men, and non-binary people, ranging in age from kids to seniors milled around the plaza, all of us seeking a way to express our fear and outrage, all of us hungry to find a sense of community in the face of such an appalling blow.
Because there’d been no time for anyone to plan a more organized event, there was no scheduled line-up of civic leaders, politicians, or performers. Instead, someone had made a microphone available for anyone who wanted to use it. For well over an hour, we listened as dozens of people took turns addressing the crowd. Some of the speakers expressed their fury at the ruling, and particularly at the three Trump-appointed justices who had lied so brazenly during their confirmation hearings, while other speakers discussed their fears for the future and what this hypocritical decision might mean for other of our prized and hard-won rights, including same-sex marriage, invitro fertilization, and even birth control. Some people took the mic to outline the political and social actions we need to take now in order to diminish the impact of that decision. One woman, who had worked at the local Planned Parenthood clinic for many years, related how many of the people who had sought abortion services there claimed they hadn’t “believed” in abortion until they were confronted with their own unwanted pregnancies.
But most of the speakers—and certainly the most powerful ones—used their turn at the microphone to share their personal stories about abortion. Many of the speakers described how being able to have legal abortions had saved their lives–sometimes literally, by enabling them to stop dangerous pregnancies, and other times more metaphorically, since being able to control their own destinies had enabled them to become better parents, better partners, and more productive members of society. Many of the older speakers described the extreme physical, social, and emotional harm they had endured, due either to illegal abortions, or to being forced to bear children they were not prepared to care for. Several women, their voices shaking, told the crowd that they had never told anyone about their abortions before that evening, but that now it seemed a crucial act of defiance and solidarity to go public with their stories. Every speaker’s story was unique, and yet, taken together, they painted a powerful picture of the universal need for safe health care, for all humans to live secure in their right to bodily autonomy.
Some of the women who spoke were unapologetic about their abortions, expressing nothing but relief at their decisions, an attitude which prompted me to consider how, although “Because I want to” is typically considered a perfectly fine rationale for choosing to have a baby, there is still a stigma against choosing to have an abortion for that same reason. Other speakers said that, although they were grateful it had been their decision to make, the choice to stop a pregnancy had been more difficult for them, reminding me that one of our rights as autonomous human beings is the right to second-guess our own choices. Men and trans people also spoke, their stories testaments to the fact that dismantling legalized abortion isn’t solely a problem for cis-women, that all of humanity is adversely impacted whenever a group of people are not allowed access to their full human rights.
Listening to those spontaneous and heart-felt stories seemed a fitting and powerful way for all of us gathered there to mark that dark day and to prepare for the huge battles that lie ahead. Neurologists tell us that we humans are hardwired for narrative as we are hardwired for language. We use stories to help us understand the world and our place in it. Hearing other people’s stories can change our thinking or reinforce our beliefs in ways that statistics or bare facts rarely can. Stories allow us to broaden our experience by escaping the confines of our own skins and minds to explore other perspectives.
Twenty years ago, when I decided I wanted to explore the experience of contemporary American motherhood in a novel, my goal was to write a story that would burrow beneath all the easy cliches about motherhood in hopes of teasing out more complicated and nuanced truths. Because every experience of motherhood is unique, I choose to write about two women who initially seem to have nothing in common except for the fact that they both become mothers.
Anna’s and Cerise’s stories begin not long after the Roe v. Wade decision has legalized abortion in America, so that when they find themselves confronted with unwanted pregnancies, they have the right to decide for themselves whether they will allow those pregnancies to continue. Although their decisions impact their lives in ways neither of them could have anticipated, for both of them, being able to claim those choices as their own helps to make the subsequent outcomes more meaningful.
Because of her greater privilege, twenty-two-year-old Anna might appear most able to adapt to unexpected motherhood, and yet—because of her privilege—she is also more able to obtain an abortion, while teenaged Cerise is bullied into continuing her pregnancy by fundamentalist anti-choice activists who abandon her long before her baby is born. But even Cerise, coerced as she was, was given a choice in the matter. Thanks in part to that shred of autonomy, and despite the enormous challenges of being an uneducated, impoverished, and friendless teenaged mother, Cerise is able to discover an unexpected source of joy and meaning in her baby. In the meantime, Anna ends up recommitting to her work as an artist as a way of honoring the significance of her decision.
Now, thanks to the Dobbs Decision, 33.5 million American women of childbearing age no longer have the right to make the choices that Anna and Cerise did. The Dobbs ruling will have an immediate, ugly, and disproportionate impact on those women who are the least able to bear the burden of unchosen pregnancies, while women with more financial resources and social support may still be able to avail themselves of the health care services they need. But even those of us who live in parts of the country where abortion is still legal, and even those of us who cannot become pregnant due to age, sexual habits, or issues of infertility are already suffering from this ruling, too. For our government to make it clear that our anatomy matters more than our autonomy, that who we are and who we hope to become is secondary to our value as breeders, and that our uteruses matter more than our minds, hands, hearts, or spirits steals an essential part of our humanity, and it cheapens everyone else’s humanity, too.