What’s after Roe?


Last updated 7/5/2022 at Noon

Many women are crushed by the Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade. I empathize. The ruling gives more power to states over what happens within a woman’s body. I can think of no similar laws allowing one human being to appropriate the biology of another. Restrictions on abortion are unique.

At the same time, women’s intimate role in the life of another is also unique. That’s the crux: If a court’s role is to protect rights of an individual against an unfair majority, then what’s to be done when individual rights collide? Which is why opponents of abortion say a fetus is “pre-born child.”

The Supreme Court did not rule against abortion, it ruled federal courts out of the discussion, saying the dispute needs to be resolved by lawmakers in individual states.

Although I am “pro choice,” I also believe that at some point, later in pregnancy, “choice” has to be limited. Others believe “choice” ends at conception. A few decades ago, “viability” was the cutoff — easy and understandable. But medicine has forced changes in that standard, as has political radicalization.

A few years ago I was shunned in a gathering of liberals after suggesting they must articulate at what point a fetus becomes a human being. “Absolutism” over a woman’s right to choose was incoherent and risky, I said, because even the most ardent “pro-choice” among them would agree that a newborn is a person with life protected by law. When did they think that occurred?

Is a fetus four weeks premature a person? Or 24 weeks premature? Or four weeks after conception? Or 12 weeks? They were unwilling to answer when in development being “human” began, and what they were willing to accept as reasonable limits to ending that life.

So, here we are. While some conservatives believe a blob of dividing cells is a person as soon as sperm and egg meet, most Americans feel a woman is more than an incubator. But most Americans also believe abortion should not be used as birth control, and at some point a lump of protoplasmic potential becomes a person.

Americans disagree on where that point might be. And where there is social disagreement, lawmakers step in.

So, when do we become a human? I don’t know, but think we get to decide. I do know we need to be careful with our words. Definitions are not precise when we divide a continuous process, label the parts and pretend we aren’t taking important relationships out of context.

Religion does not need to be involved in the discussion, and science doesn’t have the tools. It’s probably too much to tackle whether we extend legal protection to other entities that experience fear, joy, consciousness and empathy. In five years could that be an Artificial Intelligence? Ten years ago, should it have been an Orca?

I lean toward “yes” to those questions, as I lean away from considering a pollywog-like bundle of cells to be human just because those cells carry a 48 chromosome instruction pack on how to make a man or woman out of digested chicken and spinach.

But Liberals, women especially, must address these complexities and competing values. Outrage or contempt rarely persuade. Again, it’s important to remember that the Supreme Court did not ban abortions. For now. The court simply said abortion was an issue to be decided not by the courts, but by legislatures in individual states.

Access to abortion will be more difficult for some, if not impossible. That there is a difference in neighboring states seems nearly incomprehensible given what’s at stake. Women living where conservatives rule will find options curtailed when trying to stand against an oppressive cadre of (usually) men about who has jurisdiction over what will happen inside their bodies.

Other states will welcome women who choose to end a pregnancy. I believe attempts to prevent women from traveling for a legal abortion will fail. The Texas ploy of giving one set of citizens a special right to sue other citizens over essentially a religious disagreement is an abhorrent, bizarre form of state-sponsored extortion.

When an abortion moves from being a private to a social concern must not be an issue of poverty or privilege, nor an issue decided by preachers regardless of how many centuries a sect has had a voice. If it’s not a baby, it’s a mother’s choice. If it’s a baby, it’s protected no matter where that baby is, though if a mother’s life is at stake or she was not a willing participant in conception, government should tread lightly.

We need to resolve this, if for no other reason than to recognize the rights and protect the lives of our sisters and our daughters.


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