Barely 10 minutes after reading about a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion reported in Politico that indicated a majority of the nine justices are more than likely to overturn the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, I knew I had to talk to Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA).
In September 2021, Lee, the co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus along with Congresswoman Diana DeGette (CO-01), had celebrated in the House of Representatives the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA). The House vote was 218-211. The legislative bill protected the right to access abortion nationwide and was meant to serve as a firewall against increasing state-based attacks on access to abortion and any future Supreme Court decision that would strike down or erode the privacy protections established in Roe v. Wade.
Roughly one week after the May 4 leak and following conversations with my editor at this publication about writing an article centered on fallout from the potential SCOTUS action—action that would not only curtail a woman’s comprehensive right to determine her own reproductive health care, but would allow individual states to completely outlaw access to abortion and impose severe, punitive penalties on anyone providing or having an abortion—the impulse to hear from Oakland’s leading voice of democracy was made more urgent after the WHPA bill failed to pass in the Senate. All Senate Democrats voted in favor of the legislation except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. All Senate Republicans opposed the bill. The final vote of 49-51 fell short of the Senate’s threshold of 60 votes needed for passage.
By then, on May 11, a flood of questions consumed my thoughts and were on the minds of millions—people of all ages, gender identities, races, religious faiths, political positions and economic status—across the country. Who leaked the draft option? Was the report authentic? Could Justice Samuel Alito’s sweeping, hyperbolic draft that included the phrases “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” and “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” remain the language of the land and be upheld as law when the court in June renders a final decision? (Casey upheld Roe, but allowed states to impose restrictions.)
There was more: After watching the nomination hearings for justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett and in light of the trio’s “settled law” references to Roe that amounted to nothing more than dodging, how was it possible for Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to express astonishment about the majority draft opinion? More importantly, who would be most severely and immediately impacted? What would it mean for California to become a “sanctuary state” and offer protection and reproductive health services to women traveling from the 13 states with “trigger laws” that would immediately ban second- and third-trimester abortions? What was the fate of women in the six states that have only one abortion clinic and providers already overburdened with serving women seeking maternal health and family planning services?
With a flurry of unknowns and frightening, imagined ramifications arriving at once, it felt as if we entered a boxing arena to face not one, but 100 opponents. It would take a heavyweight to punch through to clarify about what facts and stories to believe, who to listen to, and which actions average citizens could take to make their voices heard.
Fortunately, Lee on May 13 was able to step outside of Congress to respond to some of these key questions and others about the effect the Supreme Court’s now expected Roe reversal decision might have on the upcoming midterm elections this fall.
“It’s shameful that not one Republican voted to protect abortion access in the Senate this past week,” Lee said. “WHPA is the only bill that would codify the principles of Roe v. Wade into law. Despite Republicans’ claim, WHPA is the only bill that will protect Americans right to abortion care. Thirty-six million people are about to lose access to abortion, and the only bill that would stop that from happening is WHPA.”
Asked to speak on how the decision would disproportionally impact some women more than others, Lee responded unequivocally as a politician and personally as a woman who, limited by reproductive care circumstances in United States the 1960s, was left with the only abortion option, to undergo an unsafe “back alley” procedure in Mexico. As a young woman, having been raised in a loving family, first in El Paso, TX, and after moving to California at age 16, Lee today believes her story is “nobody’s business, certainly, not the business of politicians,” but is compelled to speak out by the urgency of the threat to Roe.
“Abortion bans affect everyone, but the impacts of this decision will fall hardest on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, people with disabilities, people in rural areas, young people, undocumented people and those having difficulty making ends meet. We know that these people already face discriminatory obstacles to health care due to entrenched systemic racism, classism, ableism and other inequities. We know that the states that are most likely to ban abortion have much higher populations of people of color, and that the geographic clustering of many of these states will make it even harder for women to travel to a blue state,” she said.
“I know this because I lived through pre-Roe America. I got pregnant as a teenager; of course, there was no comprehensive sex ed class in school. My only option was to travel to Mexico for a dangerous, traumatic abortion at a back-alley clinic. I survived, but so many Black girls and women didn’t.”
The evidence backing up what Lee experienced and suggests is broad-based is more than anecdotal. In a report issued by the Maternal Health Task Force at the Harvard Chan School Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health, research establishes that In 2008, access to and use of contraceptives averted approximately 44% of maternal deaths around the world. Another report, issued by the U.S. Government and International Family Planning & Reproductive Health Efforts in 2021, had among its key facts information that each year, an estimated 295,000 women die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth, almost all in low and middle income countries. It further states that approximately one-third of maternal deaths could be prevented annually if women who did not wish to become pregnant had access to and used effective contraception. Worldwide, 218 million women have unmet needs for modern contraception. Extrapolated and applied to low-income women and families in the United States, it is not unimaginable that reduced access to safe abortions is likely to result in increased maternal mortality levels in America.
It is not only pro-choice supporters or democratic lawmakers such as Lee who are ringing the warning sirens. In an Associated Press article referencing an article written by Catholic blogger and disability advocate Madison Chastain for the National Catholic Reporter, Chastain writes about outlawing abortions without first attending to the lack of safety nets for women with unplanned or unwanted pregnancies—universal childcare, social and economic support for low income families, better insurance coverage for prenatal education and procedures, and more. “Making abortion illegal before addressing these injustices is going to kill some, because women will continue to have abortions, secretively and unsafely,” wrote Chastain.
Lurking behind the potential overturn of Roe and looming over other 14th Amendment privacy protections is the threat to same-sex marriage, trans families and birth control. “Overturning Roe has implications for constitutional rights far beyond just abortion,” said Lee. “Gay marriage, contraception, data protection and a slew of other issues are rooted in the right to privacy, which the conservative justices have obliterated with this draft opinion. While Justice Alito stated that this decision applies to abortion and abortion alone, legal experts everywhere are sounding the alarms that this will open up a floodgate of attacks on long-established individual rights in this country.”
Asked to provide an example of what she would say that might most persuade or convince a pro-life advocate that overturning Roe is not in the public’s best interest and places the health of women, children and families at risk, Lee said, “It cannot be repeated enough: no one is forcing you to have an abortion. If abortion is against your personal beliefs, don’t have one! You have the right to make your own decisions. But to deny people the ability to make their own personal medical decisions is inherently unconstitutional and immoral. The conservative Supreme Court will not stop here. If the right to privacy and ability to make your own medical decisions is repealed with this ruling, it will be a slippery slope. The next time you hear a Republican talk about their concern for liberty and personal freedom, ask them why they oppose reproductive freedom.”
Beyond conversations such as these, Lee suggests people in her district and beyond must support local reproductive health clinics and services in all ways possible. “If this ruling goes through, California will become a ‘sanctuary state’ of sorts for people traveling from states in which abortion is illegal. That means that our health care providers will become quickly overwhelmed. Go to marches, rallies, and make your voice heard. We will continue putting pressure on anti-choice legislators until we address this crisis once and for all by enacting federal abortion access protection nationwide.”
With the likelihood that the Supreme Court’s final decision will turn the responsibility for establishing laws and policies regarding abortion back to each individual state, the midterm elections take on epic importance. How will Democrats or lawmakers who support a woman’s right to determine her own reproductive care energize young voters and the vast number of Americans who historically turn up in low numbers for midterm elections? Again, the messaging is all important, according to Lee.
“An overwhelming majority of voters support abortion in all or most cases. For most Americans, it is not a polarizing issue. What does alarm most Americans, however, is witnessing a right-wing Supreme Court overturn 50 years of precedent to strip women of a fundamental right. It alarms young people, who for the first time will have fewer rights than their mothers did. Everywhere across this nation, people justifiably are angry and scared; they know that once Roe is overturned, other hard-won rights are on the line. The American people know that their rights are on the ballot this November—and they know Democrats are the party fighting to protect them.”