Abortion Decision Demands Disruption
In 1921 when my mother was 4, her mother died of a self-induced abortion. I never learned exactly what she did that ended her pregnancy and her life. Perhaps my mother never knew. For days, mother said when she told me about this, she and her little sister could hear their mother screaming, but they were not allowed to go into her bedroom. And then she was dead.
When the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization came down, ending a woman’s right to an abortion at the federal level, I had a very personal, visceral response. Many of us did. There was a collective gasp from women in the U.S. and other countries and a stream of questions. What did it mean? What were we going to do about it?
Why do women have abortions? Why did my grandmother, a solidly middle-class married woman, feel so strongly about her third pregnancy that she destroyed herself to end it? There are, of course, as many reasons as there are women who seek abortions, whether they ultimately have the abortion or not.
The commentary I read after the Dobbs decision centered around legal issues: What could be appealed? What were the chances of a successful appeal? What were the flaws and historical inaccuracies in Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion?
And there were demonstrations. And demonstrations.
We must do more.
How? What can we do that will interrupt the “business as usual” attitude of the Republican legislatures that have captured so many states and have legislated away women’s rights to our own bodies? How can we challenge the authority of the Supreme Court’s sweeping decision?
We must disobey.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail in 1963 that “an unjust law is no law at all” and need not be obeyed. In fact, it must be disobeyed. An unjust law, he explained, was one that did not apply to everyone in the country equally, like the Jim Crow laws meant only to control African Americans and keep them out of spaces that white people claimed.
While a Supreme Court decision cannot accurately be described as a “law,” this ruling allows states to create their own laws, laws that certainly fall into the “unjust law” category for several reasons.
- These laws target women who do not accept a fundamentalist Christian perspective on abortion. In fact, a synagogue in Florida is suing to overturn the state’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks, saying that not only does it favor one religion over another, but that this law imposes Christian views upon all others who they consider morally inferior.
- These laws privilege women who have the means to seek an abortion in a state where it is legal, leaving poor women to suffer under the laws.
- These laws punish the most vulnerable women when they allow no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, or for girls who are too young to safely carry a pregnancy to term.
Clearly the state laws that are now allowed by the Supreme Court in its Dobbs decision do not meet the conditions of a “just law.” None of these laws outlawing abortion in various configurations apply to everyone equally.
Imagine, in comparison, if after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Supreme Court had said that this law was federal government overreach and instead returned the determination of civil rights to the individual states. Do we believe for a moment that the rights of African Americans would be protected?
How can we disobey?
If we conclude that the Supreme Court decision invalidating a woman’s right to abortion codifies injustice, what are we going to do about it? What actions can we take that will make a difference after this appalling decision?
Disruptive power is what Civil Rights nonviolent activists claimed for that movement. Disruptive power is different from a march or a demonstration that expresses an opinion without a following withdrawal of cooperation. It is also different from a demonstration that results in violence and the destruction of lives and property. Both of these give the protestors “voice,” but merely voicing a grievance does not confer power.
Disruptive actions are intended to stop business as usual. Marches and demonstrations will give protestors “voice,” but only disruptive action will leverage the power of change.
Consider some disruptive actions from our foremothers (and fathers):
- Suffragists chained themselves to the White House fence. How about the Supreme Court pillars? Or the entrance to the Court where justices and clerks enter?
- ACT UP protestors chained themselves to the desks of pharmacy executives. Who is impeding our access to abortion? What about the desks of every politician who has voted to end or curtail abortion in our states?
- African American students in the South sat at lunch counters until they were pulled off their chairs by white mobs – but the lunch counters were desegregated because the businesses were losing money. Any pharmacy that refuses to sell the morning-after pill or medical abortion pills deserves the same treatment. Shut them down until they comply with what women need, not what politicians want.
What else? I know there are women in abortion-safe states setting up websites for women who need, but cannot access, pills or other services. There are websites offering to drive women across state lines to access the health care they need. But these are private actions that will help individual women. We need more.
We need to be loud and confrontational and disruptive. We need to be willing to take the consequences of our disruptions. Suffragists went to prison and were force-fed. Gay men were arrested and jailed. African American students were beaten and jailed.
And they created the changes they were seeking.
Judith McDaniel, a former professor at Skidmore College, is now a professor at the University of Arizona where she teaches courses on women, the law, and social change. (Thanks to the author for submitting this -- moderator.)
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