The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No matter if one feels relief or devastation, the weight of overturning Roe is profound

Antiabortion demonstrators chant and celebrate in a storm of bubbles after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
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The bubbles floated into the air and swirled around the antiabortion activists who had come to the street in front of the Supreme Court to celebrate the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The antiabortion activists cheered. They were giddy. Mostly they were young, college-age women and men from Minnesota and Texas and across the country who had come to the nation’s capital for a gathering of like minds and the added bonus of watching history unfold. They snuggled up next to each other in their blue and red T-shirts and they posted on social media, enthusing over their culture war victory, and they hugged each other in joy. They held up placards declaring themselves “the post-Roe generation,” which seemed a bit of a facile boast since they were too young to know what it was like to have lived through pre-Roe times.

The Black-Eyed Peas played over a speaker and Fergie belted out, “I gotta feeling. That tonight’s gonna be a good night.” And indeed, the “students for life” were feeling good. They weren’t so much dancing as jumping up and down with a slight acknowledgment of the beat, as if First Street NE, the dividing line between the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol, was the site of a morning rave.

It was a heartbreaking spectacle. For some honest brokers, this decision may well heal a cultural wound that has pained them for decades. For others, it is a harbinger of sorrows yet to come. No matter if one feels relief or devastation, the weight of this decision is profound. It is sobering. It is not fizzy.

With its 6 to 3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court declared that Americans no longer have a constitutional right to an abortion. It’s now up to each state to legislate the parameters of abortion access, thus making bodily autonomy synonymous with geography. In New York, you are your own woman; in Mississippi, you are not. For some people — those of limited means, those without the ability to travel, those who are simply overwhelmed by hurdles and fine print and religious dogma — an unwanted pregnancy will no longer be a private medical decision. It will become government-enforced, biological motherhood. A village can go to the ballot box and vote on whether a child is brought into this world, but the village does not have to raise that child.

The Supreme Court: Unreachable, inaccessible and frightening

The arrival of Friday morning’s decision in Dobbs was heralded by the sound of police sirens signaling that once again the nation’s capital was on high alert. The court was already surrounded by high black fencing and low metal bike racks ever since a draft of the opinion leaked last month. Neighboring streets have been blocked for weeks and the sidewalk shut down. But those on opposite sides of this argument have been yelling at each other for nearly 50 years, ever since Roe was decided in 1973. Those who tirelessly battled Roe have done so, they said, to save lives. And if that is more than rhetoric, it would seem that their fresh victory also comes with a tremendous responsibility. It yields a sobering duty that extends beyond making sure that a pregnancy goes to term and that the mother gets a few donations of diapers, a box of formula and the occasional “God bless you.”

The abortion rights advocates were now forced onto the offensive and outside the Supreme Court they were yelling that they wouldn’t back down and they wouldn’t go back to a time of illicit abortions. A parade of lawmakers who support abortion rights marched over from the Capitol. They could barely be heard over the celebrations and the protesting and Fergie, but they offered up a few platitudes and cathartic rallying cries, but there really wasn’t much else to say. “Women are going to control their bodies no matter how they try to stop us,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Calif.) said. “The hell with the Supreme Court. We will defy them.”

The antiabortion activists were jubilant. They didn’t even seem to notice the aggrieved lawmakers. “The best day ever,” someone in the antiabortion crowd yelled. And in their estimation, surely it was. But what about days and months and years from now? Do they anticipate the weight of what June 24, 2022 will mean for those distressed pregnant people who are not swayed by the exhortations of volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers and choose unsafe means to end their pregnancy? What might it feel like to live next door to someone who was bullied into becoming a mother, to be the neighbor of a woman who did not grow into the role of mom or find some inner maternal selflessness, but instead simply plodded along dutifully but not joyfully, perhaps even angrily, never shaking the grief over the life she could have had? What will happen when those who are dancing and screaming and thanking God are asked to fund more affordable and accessible child care and early education programs? What will happen when those who felt such moral certitude in their stance on abortion find that Dobbs has opened a door to ending constitutional guarantees of other rights such as access to contraception, interracial marriage and same-sex marriage? To what exactly have they hitched their righteousness?

This Texas teen wanted an abortion. She now has twins.

“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away a constitutional right from the American people that it had already recognized,” President Biden said. “They didn’t limit it; they simply took it away.”

“It’s a sad day for the court and for the country,” Biden said.

The opponents of abortion rights aimed to define themselves as defenders of life. They forced the question of when life begins and they had the audacity to believe they had the answer. They fought to protect an embryo, a fetus, a baby. They proclaimed that they knew better, that they knew more about that cluster of cells inside the womb than anyone else. They spoke about those cells with certainty and cultivated a conversation in which abortion was a kind of existential crime rather than a medical procedure.

And so it seems that after all that communing with their God, their better angels and their personal moral compass, antiabortion activists might want to take a deep breath and consider what this decision means, not simply within the confines of their household or church or neighborhood, but what it will mean for those people that they don’t know and who are simply statistics, anecdotes and talking points. Now antiabortion folks must ask themselves how much they value the lives that they have altered, the lives they may have mid-wived into being with their single-minded political force?

They won. And the spoils of their victory are an enormous moral debt. This may be their best day, but it’s not one to celebrate.