Take it from an Irish woman: if US abortion rights keep slipping, dark days are coming

I am a woman in America who can bear children, and this means that there are powerful people coming for me, with detailed and strategic plans to control my body. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? It is dramatic, more so because it’s a straight-up fact. In 2021, state legislatures enacted more abortion restrictions than in any previous year, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy body dedicated to advancing reproductive rights. Last month’s decision by the supreme court to refuse to block a Texas law all but banning abortion signals that the court could well be on the way to overturn Roe v Wade, and soon.

National legalized abortion is just one part of this. Reproductive justice advocates as far back as 1994 understood that when women don’t have access to abortion it generally means that we don’t have access to a whole host of other rights: affordable contraceptives, comprehensive sex education, pre-natal care, even screening and treatment for a variety of diseases including cancer and HIV. This is an overall form of oppression, and I know what’s happening. I also fear I know what’s coming.

I live in New York City, I am financially stable and I am white. These factors, as well as legal protections in New York, mean that I get to live a life free from coercion, with access to contraception, to reproductive healthcare, to a medical abortion if I need one. I don’t take this for granted, because this reality is worlds away from where I grew up – in Ireland, a country that only legalised abortion in 2018.

Here in the US, back in 1973, the supreme court affirmed the legality of a woman’s right to have an abortion under the 14th amendment to the constitution. Living in this far from perfect nation, I still have the right to make choices about my own health and future, meaning a life with more dignity and autonomy than I had growing up, and that is an extraordinary thing.

But even if I don’t yet feel it, the threat of losing this hard-won freedom is all around me. In the words of Alexis McGill Johnson, president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, “The moment is dark … No matter where you live, no matter where you are, this fight is at your doorstep right now.”

McGill Johnson was speaking on 2 October, as women across the country organized through the Women’s March protested against the US supreme court’s refusal to block the Texas legislation. Talk about being up against it: Donald Trump appointed three conservative justices, meaning that the court now has an anti-abortion majority and reproductive justice hangs in the balance. That is why on 4 October, Emma Whittman, a 22-year-old public health student from Arizona sat in the road, blocking traffic outside the supreme court in Washington DC. She was arrested for civil disobedience.

“I’m not from Texas, but I feel like I’m fighting for people in Texas,” she told me, as well as people “in all of these other states that will probably get abortion bans, and will be impacted when Roe v Wade is overturned. I feel like I’m fighting for all women around the country.” It was Whittman’s first arrest and the experience of being searched and held by the police was scary. Concerns about how an arrest and a potential criminal record may affect her future career worried her too. But Whittman was not alone. Her mother, an OB/GYN from Tucson, was there too, reassuring her daughter as she was zip-tied, telling her that she loved her and was proud of her.

Women take care of each other. We always have. In Ireland, in the darkest and most oppressive times, when our reproductive rights and our health were out of our hands, we did what we could to make each other safe. In 1980 Irish women could not get condoms, divorce was illegal and abortion was shameful, illegal and dangerous. In 2018, after a compassionate but fierce campaign, almost two of every three Irish people voted to legalize abortion.

Today in the US, the moment is indeed dark, and there are darker times ahead. Women, as ever, are fighting against that. Professor Terry McGovern, chair of the department of population and family health at the Columbia University medical center, was also arrested outside the supreme court that day. She points out that Texas already has a severe maternal mortality crisis with a disproportionate effect on Black women.

“They’re not taking care of women and children,” she told me. “They have the worst health outcomes. And then they’re focusing on restricting women and girls and people’s bodily autonomy?” That is why she showed up on the steps of the supreme court, and that is why she will continue to fight. “It has absolutely always been true in history that when a law is as thoroughly amoral as this one, and it will be when they overturn Roe, that we have to do whatever we need to do to protect people’s health.”

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