Running in Place

Image: AP

My first job in journalism, in 2013, was called something like “assistant lifestyle editor” and involved blogging six to eight times a day about topics ranging from the couches on Mad Men to a dolphin that got stuck in a heavily polluted waterway in New York City. I wanted to write about politics, and sometimes did, but was mostly steered back to making very embarrassing lists of celebrities who wouldn’t call themselves feminists on the red carpet. That changed, at least for a while, after Texas introduced one of the most sweeping sets of abortion restrictions in the country. In June of that year, thousands of people in the state turned out for regular protests against the bill and Wendy Davis, a Democrat in the state Senate, staged a 13-hour filibuster to block it. As the midnight deadline to pass it neared, a parliamentary inquiry from Leticia Van de Putte—“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” the Democrat from San Antonio asked—sent the chamber into riotous applause that drowned out any efforts to call the body to order. In that cacophony, midnight came and went. The bill died, at least temporarily.

Their efforts against a Republican-controlled legislature ultimately failed and the bill passed, shuttering nearly half the clinics in the state before being partially dismantled by the Supreme Court. But the activism that swelled in response—and similar activism happening throughout the country—was now commanding more national attention. Suddenly, according to the cynical calculus of my then-editor in chief, the rapid expansion in state-level legislation aimed at regulating abortion out of existence for poor women and women of color was worthy of daily coverage. And so I covered it.

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I wrote about so-called “heartbeat bills” being introduced in several states and the well-funded, Washington, DC-based organization writing the draft legislation behind them. I learned the vocabulary lawmakers used to try and smother abortion access with mountains of red tape, introducing bills that leveraged the size of hallways and availability of parking spaces in order to shutter clinics. I interviewed providers who reported an increase in harassment as the protesters stationed outside their clinics—tracking their license plates and home addresses—felt more and more politically empowered. I spoke to women who could barely afford the gas to get to work and now had to pay for two roundtrip visits to a clinic 100 or more miles away because their state had enacted a waiting period. I covered protests and outreach efforts as people, almost always women, organized to build shadow infrastructures to support access to abortion for people shut out by the new laws. I felt like part of a contingent of women journalists trying to write out a map of the ways that people all over the country had only nominal access to abortion—to the basic rights and protections supposedly enshrined in Roe v. Wade—and how that deprivation touched every part of their material and emotional lives.  These stories felt new to me as a new reporter, but they were old. They were the stories of before Roe and they were the stories of after Roe.

In the years since, those same stories are being reported, both at Jezebel and elsewhere. You can read them and feel lost in time. What year was it that a woman would describe the sense of numb resignation she felt after she learned her Medicaid wouldn’t pay for an abortion she desperately wanted and couldn’t otherwise afford? What year was it that a woman attempted to self-induce an abortion and was indicted on a charge of attempted murder in the first degree? What year was it that women organized anonymous networks to secure safe home abortions for those who couldn’t otherwise access them? What year was it when lawmakers somewhere in America introduced legislation that erases the pregnant person—a vessel construed by law to be devoid of needs, desires, and condition beyond the pregnancy itself—and elevates the fetus as in unique possession of humanity and rights to be protected.

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Search for “heartbeat bill” or “fetal pain” or “poor women access to abortion” and you will see identical bills, identical headlines, identical responses from mainstream Democratic lawmakers, and identical suffering.

But some things have changed: many of the nightmare predictions made in those years feel closer to coming true. The specter of a majority anti-abortion Supreme Court, which for too long was treated by Democratic lawmakers and mainstream journalists as the beginning and end of the fight for abortion rights, has come true. The Trump administration threaded anti-abortion ideologues throughout the federal bureaucracy, from the Office for Refugee Resettlement to the Department of Health and Human Services. Republicans still control a majority of state legislatures and have governed to their worst and cruelest instincts. These forces had been at work for decades, and in that time, the post-Roe future became real for millions of people.

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I find myself, six years later, in awe of the committed medical practitioners and organizers who continue to fight—often at great personal risk—to give pregnant people the autonomy our government conspires to steal from them. I am grateful for the increasingly radical—and moral and necessary and compassionate—things people are willing to do to serve this same end. But I also feel a heady kind of shock that I have spent my entire career as a journalist writing versions of the same terrible story. Six years later—46 years after Roe—and here we all are. Someplace we’ve already been.

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