With the early release of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision written by Justice Alito in May, we knew what the opinion would be. The finality of the end to the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly 50 years, no longer existing was still striking to those on all sides of the issue. Some celebrated while others mourned, and a wide range of other emotions has flooded our airways and dominated public and private conversations. And these conversations and the organizing they will spark have just begun as SCOTUS has returned the decision-making regarding abortion back to the states.
For me, it struck a frightening chord as this move to states’ rights harkens to an era that saw some states craft laws that legally permitted the stripping away of the rights of some of their citizens—darker-skinned, poor, immigrant. The appeal to states’ rights was devastating for newly freed Black folk in the 1800s and its echoes continue today as we are far from a colorblind society or a welcoming society for those who are among the poor and working poor or those who are immigrants.
The landscape that the court’s reversal landed in was already troubled. The legal right to abortion under Roe v. Wade was never enough to guarantee actual access for the poor and people of color. The Hyde Amendment, other budget riders, and funding restrictions created at the state level made coverage of abortion care limited—even for those who have insurance. There were and remain in force medically unnecessary and politically motivated state laws that restrict access. For example, TRAP laws (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) and multiple-visit requirements made access to abortion difficult to impossible for many. Around the country, there were multiple states with only one abortion clinic and 27 cities with populations of over 100,000 that are without a clinic within 100 miles. The court’s reversal will exacerbate an already difficult reality for those seeking access to abortion as it will put abortion out of reach for those who cannot afford to travel for their care.
As troubling as I personally find the SCOTUS opinion, it is Justice Clarence Thomas’ separate, concurring opinion that sent shivers up my spine. To my mind, it was an extreme view as he opined that the high court should revisit all cases built on similar legal footing as Roe—cases that guarantee the right to contraception, same-sex consensual sexual relations, and same-sex marriage. It may well be that the court’s majority is just beginning to roll back many hard-fought rights. If this is the world that we have entered into, it will be imperative that those of us who are guided by faith traditions do the hard and necessary work of understanding the wide scope that form the foundation of any of these issues and to provide forums that represent the wide diversity of opinions on topics that will undoubtedly move all of us out of our comfort zones, but may well help us live into the hard work of creating and maintaining democracy.
Emilie M. Townes
Dean and Distinguished Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society
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