If this article is correct, the Supreme Court of the United States (“Supreme Court”) is on the verge of voting to overturn both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1973 and 1992 decisions, respectively, which guaranteed women access to abortion everywhere in the United States as a Constitutional right. Overturning Roe and Casey reverts all decision-making on abortion back to individual state legislatures, meaning back to the voters in those states and the District of Columbia. By one count, 21 states already have laws on the books outlawing abortion, with another four poised to do so immediately. Where you live would then determine whether the abortion you deem necessary is legal or not.
This, in fact, was the predicament in which my genetic mother found herself in early 1966, when she learned she was pregnant. In Chapter 5 (Parallel Lines of Investigation Reveal My Genetic Parents) of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I describe the intersecting paths I took to discover the truth about my adoption and genetic heritage, what I call my “origin story.” Early in that chapter, I write the following:
I will always be grateful to Lou and Elaine Berger for having the courage to adopt me sight unseen, explaining I was adopted as soon as I understood the concept, loving me unconditionally and providing opportunities I may not otherwise have had. But tell that to the young woman who found herself unexpectedly pregnant early in 1966. Seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that state laws outlawing abortion were unconstitutional, effectively making first trimester abortions legal nationwide,[i]a woman with an unwanted pregnancy had three options:
- Carry the pregnancy to term then raise her child, perhaps by herself or with support from other family members, possibly losing or delaying opportunities for educational and/or career advancement in the process,
- Carry the pregnancy to term then arrange to have the child adopted or raised by other family members, or
- Seek an illegal, possibly deadly, abortion
My genetic mother chose the second option, contacting Herman Modell that summer. While from my perspective, this was the “correct” choice, had she instead chosen to abort me, that would have been her decision, and her decision alone. That is what “pro-choice” means.
Overturning Roe and Casey would also be the political equivalent of an asteroid slamming into the North Atlantic Ocean: it would fundamentally alter the 2022 midterm elections by putting abortion rights – actually the revocation of a right – front and center. And even though it technically “allows” states to decide themselves, the fact that where within the United States you live would determine whether the abortion you seek is legal or illegal means it is no longer universal, which means it is no longer a “right” as I understand the word.
In June 2001, I became a data analyst and project manager with the Research Department of the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”). This was a non-profit organization, organized under the Title X Family Planning Program of 1970, whose goal was to guarantee safe and affordable contraception and reproductive health to lower-income women (and men). While federal law prevented them from working directly with abortion providers, the close connection was understood. Hard as it is to believe in our current state of political polarization, but one of our strongest supporters was a Republican: Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Spector.
I worked at the FPC for four years, the four most rewarding years of my two-decade-long career as a health-related data analyst…and yet, as I write a few pages later in Chapter 5:
An unplanned pregnancy spurs a decision. I also hesitated because, true or not, I thought it would hurt my legal mother, given her reproductive difficulties. Less than two years after her death, however, I enrolled in the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). Two months after that, I met a woman named Nell. Our first year of dating included a multi-month separation. But as winter 2006 approached, we had fallen into a very good groove. So good, in fact, that on the morning of Saturday, January 13, 2007, Nell surprised me with the news she was pregnant. Ironically, I had recently spent four years working for a non-profit devoted to family planning, and we were diligent users of contraception. At the time, we were not only unmarried, we did not even live in the same town. Still, once the initial shock wore off, we embraced what was coming.
One afternoon later that month, we were sitting in the small triangle-shaped park near Nell’s apartment in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton; I later learned this was Rabbi Joseph Sholom Shubow Park, directly across from Temple B’nai Moshe, or Temple “House of Moshe,” my Hebrew name. As we discussed the pregnancy, Nell said,
“You know,” she said, “when this baby is born, it will be the first genetic relative you will have ever known.”
That floored me. I had never expected to marry, let alone have children. The thought of a living genetic relative took time to process. And while I had idly speculated at times about the existence of half-siblings, I had essentially convinced myself I was sui generis, a one-off who had suddenly appeared, as if by magic, in Havertown in early October 1966. Moreover, the adoption story I had told so often had become firmly entrenched in my narrative repertoire.
But Nell’s insight made my unknown genetic heritage tangible in a way it had never been before, if only because it was no longer my heritage alone: it was also the heritage of the child we expected that fall. It also hammered home to me that my mother was no longer alive to be distressed were I to search for that heritage, down to locating and meeting surviving genetic relatives if it ever got that far; my father had died two decades earlier.
Unfortunately, at the 11-week ultrasound on February 13, the technician could not detect a heartbeat. Anxious minutes later, we learned Nell had a partial molar pregnancy. The only cure is a surgical procedure called “suction curettage.” After that, levels of the pregnancy hormone gonadotropin (“HCG”) are assessed weekly until they drop to pre-pregnancy levels. I did what I could to help Nell through the weeks of blood tests, at one point observing her HCG levels were not dropping arithmetically, but by a constant fraction. Within a few months, thankfully, her HCG level reached the desired level.
Nell’s abortion – for that is what it was – occurred the next day, Valentine’s Day, a day I already disliked intensely. While I joked to Nell, “At least we’re together,” I genuinely thought the pain of this loss marked the end of our relationship. Instead, though, the partial molar pregnancy and its aftermath pushed Nell and me through our relationship ambivalence. Once our two extraordinary children were born, I began to grapple with the implications of my “origin story” and genetic inheritance belonging to them as well.
Massachusetts is a state with a firm commitment to protecting abortion rights, so even in a post-Roe world, this story would have ended the same way. But what if these events occurred next year in Mississippi or Georgia or Wisconsin or any of other 22 states where abortion is now illegal? Would Nell have been forced to continue a “pregnancy” which was poisoning her? It was easy to schedule the D&C for the day after the ultrasound in Boston – but what if we had been forced to travel hundreds of miles to another state, possibly delaying the necessary procedure days or even weeks? The mind reels at the sheer cruelty of such an act.
Meanwhile, everybody born in the United States after January 1973 has only known abortion as a constitutional right – because their own Supreme Court had told them it was, not once, but on multiple occasions. It is extremely difficult to take something away from a citizenry – from an electorate, to be more precise – once bestowed; just recall every ill-fated attempt to repeal unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and, most recently, the Affordable Care Act. There are always severe repercussions.
While I have absolutely no idea how the formal overturning of Roe will impact the 2022 midterm elections, the following scenario is at least plausible.
First, every Democrat up for election this year makes a full-throated defense of abortion rights – and the basic freedom to control one’s own reproductive and health decisions – central to their campaigns. Indeed, it is long past time for Democrats to use the rhetoric of “freedom” and “individual liberty” against Republicans.
Second, younger Democratic-leaning voters, those most likely to be critical of the Biden-Harris Administration for not enacting their policy priorities, will quickly realize they have just lost a right they had taken for granted literally their entire lives. And they will vent their fury on every possible form of social media, rallying like-minded younger voters to action.
Third, steps one and two merge into a surge in enthusiasm for Democrats on the generic ballot. Republicans, who had counted on a relatively apathetic and disengaged younger electorate to regain control of both the United States House of Representatives (“House”) and Senate (“Senate”) suddenly realize that – in the words of Dorium Moldovar in the Doctor Who episode “A Good Man Goes To War” – they “pricked the side of a mighty beast…and entirely failed to run.” And the more conservative activists – who have sought this moment for nearly five decades – celebrate the revocation of a Constitutional right to abortion, the more they goad younger Democratic-leaners into voting.
Fourth, what could have been a Democratic bloodbath in November looks avertable – at least in the Senate and key governor’s races, with the House closer to a toss-up.
Frankly, in a healthy democracy, this is what SHOULD happen, and it is what is implied by “let the voters decide.” Many of those voters will be mad as hell that something they had long taken for granted has now been yanked away from them.
Fasten your seat belts, the next six months just got a lot more interesting.
Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! Also, if you are not already registered to vote, please do so immediately. And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.
[i] https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/410/113. Accessed July 24, 2017.