S4 E6. Body Politics

Nearly 70 percent of Americans want abortion to remain legal. But right now, it’s not up to them.

Pro-choice activists rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 21, 2019. Their struggle against state-level abortion restrictions continues, even as the conservative super-majority on the high court appears poised to roll back and even dismantle longstanding protections for abortion rights secured in Roe v. Wade, in 1979, and upheld in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992. Having allowed the Texas “heartbeat bill” to stand, the court is considering whether a Mississippi law banning abortion as early as 15 weeks into a pregnancy is constitutional. During oral arguments, the lone three liberal justices signaled that overturning Roe would weaken confidence in the judicial branch and belie any pretense that its decisions are apolitical.

Photograph by Rena Schild via Shutterstock.com

Last December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a Mississippi case that could hurt women across the country. At issue is a near-total ban on abortion that flies in the face of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision a half-century ago. Conservative justices could overturn abortion rights in America by the end of the court’s term. This week, journalist Rebecca Traister argues that establishment Democrats have failed to protect the healthcare needs of poor and marginalized people — and to defend democracy.

Norma McCorvey — a.k.a. Jane Roe — and her lawyer, Gloria Allred, right, meet on the steps of the Supreme Court building in 1989.

Photograph by Rena Schild

If the high court’s tepid reaction to an equally controversial Texas law is any indication, the outlook is not good for abortion activists. The measure under review in that case prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected and deputizes citizens to report and sue anyone who enables such procedures. The court’s conservative majority turned down a request to block the law while it remains in dispute.

Traister tells Will and guest host Allison Wright that the Democratic Party has been apathetic at best in supporting a constitutional right to abortion. Instead, Traister says, Roe has been undermined from the beginning by federal policies like the Hyde amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds to help people who want to end their pregnancies. She remains optimistic in the long run, however, that progressives will be able to reassert a right that a large majority of Americans support, once they begin to understand the struggle as a defense not only of bodily autonomy and privacy, but of hard-won gender, racial and economic justice.

About our guest

Rebecca Traister is a writer at large for New York magazine. She writes about women in politics, media and entertainment for the Nation, New York Times, Washington Post and others. Her most recent book is Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Simon & Schuster, 2019). She is also the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and the bestseller All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon & Schuster 2016). Follow Traister on Twitter @rtraister.

This episode was released on March 23, 2022.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Across history, women have turned their rage into productive action, a phenomenon Traister plumbs in Good and Mad. In it, she argues that women are held to a double-standard when it comes to emotional expression in the public sphere.

All the Single Ladies came out the same year the proportion of American women who are married dropped below half the population, as the median age for first marriages rose to 27. In this book, Traister writes about the history and consequences of being single.

In Big Girls Don’t Cry, Traister examines rhetoric on race, gender and generational differences during the 2008 election, assessing how that presidential campaign — and reactions to it — shaped what it means to be a woman in America.

Watch Traister on MSNB’s All In, as she unpacks how state laws have chipped away at the legal framework of Roe, making it all but impossible for low-income minorities from availing themselves of the same healthcare available to everyone else.

Following oral arguments in the Mississippi case — Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Traister took issue with casting blame on individuals such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died while President Trump was in office. The real issue is systemic, she wrote: “the failure to counter a regressive movement’s project to ensure minority rule [...] reflects a deeper one: an unwillingness to take the full humanity of women, of pregnant people, of Black and brown and poor people, seriously.”

Read all of Traister’s work for New York magazine.

From around the web

S.B. 8 in Texas allows private citizens to sue abortion providers — and anyone who helps a pregnant person seek the procedure.

Photo illustration by Evgenia Parajanian via Shutterstock.com

Although they’ve had little success so far, abortion providers are still challenging Senate Bill 8, the Texas “heartbeat bill” passed last year. That case is now before the state’s Supreme Court.

Since Texas passed its abortion measure, states across the Union, including Florida and Idaho, have passed similar laws, including some that infringe on the rights of transgender Americans.

Some Missouri lawmakers are pushing a new law to prevent citizens from seeking out-of-state abortions.

Until recently, Justice Clarence Thomas frequently found himself writing solo-dissents in abortion rights cases. Now, according to a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, a new moment has come for Thomas and his wife, Ginni, in their crusade for ultra-conservative causes.

Clarence Thomas is sworn in on October 23, 1991, as his wife, Virginia Thomas, looks on. Justice Byron White, right, administers the oath of office.

Photograph from the White House archive

Republicans who support restrictions on abortion and other forms of reproductive care have gained support from white nationalists and anti-immigration forces. Their concern: “Western decline.” It’s an idea with a long history, going back to the late 19th century and the Ku Klux Klan. Before that, abortion and contraception was only unevenly criminalized.

Polling on abortion has, until recently, been shaped by a simplistic binary: for or against. More sophisticated analysis shows well over half of Americans believe the procedure should be legal in all or most cases.

Read up on Dobbs before it’s decided. The 2018 Mississippi law under review in that case prohibits abortions after 15 weeks, with few exceptions. With Congress having failed to codify abortion rights in federal law, the Supreme Court’s holding will have far-reaching ramifications, especially since more than 20 states have antiabortion “trigger laws.”

If Roe and Casey are undone the floodgates to further restrictions on women’s access to reproductive care may open up.

Photograph by Steven Frame via Shutterstock.com

As you’ll hear on the show, the long-term worry for many women extends well beyond abortion rights. Federal law, along with similar policies in many states, already allows physicians to refuse sterilization services.

Traister isn’t the only observer saying the debate over abortion is fundamentally a debate over democracy. One pro-life conservative also says the abortion dilemma has caused him to lose faith in liberal democracy, though for different reasons.

Writing for the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 2012, meanwhile, Eduardo M. Peñalver — then dean of the Cornell University’s law school — argued that abortion “must be made illegal,” by whatever means, because, he wrote, it is “not properly the subject of conscientious democratic deliberation.”

Whether it’s made illegal or not, women will continue to seek elective abortions and, research suggests, at much the same rate, if far less safely. Here’s some solid data from 2008 to 2014 on the prevalence of abortion across demographic groups.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

Listen to the complete recording of the Dec. 1 oral arguments in Dobbs on the U.S. Supreme Court’s web portal.

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