It sounds like a plot from “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
A woman gets an abortion after learning she is pregnant two months after being raped. She asks her friend for a ride to a clinic to have the procedure. Her friend tells another friend about the abortion. The other friend, who has nothing to do with any of it, is anti-choice and reports the abortion to prolifewhistleblower.com, which results in the driver friend, the clinic provider and anyone else involved being fined at minimum $10,000 plus legal fees for “aiding or abetting” an abortion. There is no cap on the damages a court can impose.
As bizarre and cruel as this bounty-hunting scenario sounds, it’s not fiction.
Last Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the country’s second-largest state — Texas — to do just that, by letting stand Senate Bill 8, which prohibits doctors from providing abortions after cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks after conception and before many people know they are pregnant. There is no exception for rape or incest. Further, it creates a vigilante system where individuals can report on those who help people seek abortions.
Many feared that the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court would lead to real threats to abortion rights and possibly overturning Roe v. Wade, but this Texas law is what New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called “sinister brilliance.” Since the law targets individuals and not the state, it’s much harder to challenge in court.
But let’s be clear, this law will not stop people in Texas from getting abortions, especially people with resources.
As they have throughout time, women and pregnant people will still find ways to terminate pregnancies. And today, over a third of abortions done for people who are eight weeks pregnant or less are medication abortions, using the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, which patients can take at home in many states up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.
But the law will make abortion much harder to access and the burden will fall disproportionately, as it always does, on the most vulnerable: people of color, low-income people and young people. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, about 70% of Texas abortions in 2019 were provided to people of color.
Even before this ruling, “sinister brilliance” was in play by creating logistical barriers to abortion access in Texas and other states. TRAP laws, or “Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers,” effectively removed access to abortions by creating nearly insurmountable obstacles such as requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles, a near impossibility in many rural areas.
In Washington, groups like Surge Reproductive Justice, where I used to be a board member, are working to widen the conversation beyond abortion rights alone and address these unequal impacts on people of color. The reproductive justice movement comes out of the work of Black feminist leaders such as Loretta Ross, one of the founders of SisterSong, a foundational reproductive justice group. SisterSong’s definition of reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
“Safe and sustainable” communities means that reproductive justice looks at not just access to reproductive health care but, more broadly, issues such as prison abolition and birth outcomes for marginalized communities.
E.N. West, the co-director of Surge, said of last week’s court decision: “In some ways it felt devastating, in other ways, it unfortunately felt a little inevitable.”
West said it was a wake-up call that we can’t rely on the courts any longer to protect our rights and that work needs to be done on the ground to advance the “inherently intersectional” reproductive justice movement through community organizing.
Though Washington isn’t as restrictive as other states, it’s a mistake to act like restrictions on reproductive health are just a problem in the South, said West, since access to reproductive health care varies depending on where you live.
With the number of restrictions on abortions in many states, it’s easy to forget that access to legal abortion is still widely supported. According to an Pew survey in April, 59% of adults said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Abortion is also common. About 1 in 4 women will have an abortion in their lifetime, though discussion of the procedure is still heavily stigmatized. To counteract that, Seattle’s Amelia Bonow created Shout Your Abortion in 2015, starting as a hashtag and then a book, to make visible what was too often made invisible and couched in shame.
I also had an abortion when I was in my early 20s. The reasons were personal and complicated, but I don’t regret my choice and I don’t take having a choice for granted. Seeing so many other people since then come forward with their own stories has paved the way to tell the truth about my own. Hopefully more people will feel safe to do the same as the impact of this court decision comes into clearer focus.