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This morning, in a 6-3 decision, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. The Court’s decision in Jackson Womens’ Health Organization v. Dobbs explicitly overrules both Roe and the 1994 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, thus decreeing that the right to an abortion is not protected by any provision of the Constitution. This decision will effectively outlaw abortion in 17 states, with many other states likely to follow suit in the coming months. (See our extensive “Guide: How will my state be impacted by the overturning of Roe v. Wade?” to see how your state will be affected by today’s ruling).
Abortion activists have been raising alarm bells for years, warning that this day would come. They have continually decried the increasingly aggressive efforts of anti-abortion state legislatures to limit abortion over the course of decades, as well as the alarmingly successful, multi-generational campaign that Republicans have waged to change the face of the federal judiciary, thus making a decision like the one passed down today all but inevitable. However, while this decision represents the latest advance in the slow-creeping, multifaceted legislative and judicial erosion of bodily autonomy in America, make no mistake: On its own, this decision will have monumental consequences and will change the course of millions of people’s lives for decades to come.
Despite the fact that Republicans have continually drifted further to the right and become more aggressive in their pursuit of permanent minority rule, every step that the GOP (fueled by an increasingly Christofascist base) has taken to roll back basic rights has been met by a milquetoast, head-in-the-sand response from mainstream media, which has repeatedly minimized the extremist nature of conservatives’ actions and assured the public that it is “not that bad.” Time and time again, these voices have tried to settle an outraged public by calmly explaining that any eventual changes to the social order handed down by this Court will be minimal, and time and time again they have been proven wrong.
Now, with the rights of pregnant people completely scuttled, and with the Court giving clear indications that other rights (including the right to contraception, the right to private possession of pornography, and the right to sexual autonomy) are on the chopping block, mainstream media is still promoting the idea that this is not that big of deal. Writing about a post-Roe America for The New York Times this month, David Leonhardt implied that this expected decision would only have a modest effect on abortion rights, because, his reasoning goes, many red states already heavily restrict the right to abortion and because it is now easier to access medication abortion than in 1973 (Leonhardt glosses over the possible legal risks for people seeking such care in the post-Roe era).
Hayley McMahon, a public health doctoral student who focuses on the structural determinants of abortion access, thinks that pieces like Leonhardt’s twist the research on abortion access and present an inaccurate picture. “The study that Leonhardt is referencing literally concludes ‘the average resident is expected to experience a 249 mile increase in travel distance, and the abortion rate is predicted to fall by 32.8%… in the year following a Roe reversal,’” McMahon told TRNN. “We know that being denied abortion care has lasting consequences for both the individual and public health.”
Such efforts to minimize the struggles millions of people will face as a direct result of the Dobbs decision are especially troubling when you consider that we have every reason to suspect that a Republican Congress would pursue a nationwide ban on abortion.
Robin Marty, operations director of West Alabama Women’s Center and the author of The New Handbook for a Post-Roe America took to Twitter to point out that efforts by media pundits and politicians to downplay the severity of this decision is part of a sinister strategy to quell well-founded outrage. The very framing that Leonhardt uses in his Times article, Marty wrote, “is meant to subdue the anger, give people an option to feel okay that ‘someone else’ lost their rights.” Because the laws that will end abortion in individual states will be staggered, Marty elaborated, each individual stage of the systematic stripping of people’s rights can be framed as “not that bad” if viewed in contextless isolation. Taken in its totality, though, the situation is, in fact, that bad.
One could even see how the bombshell publication of Justice Alito’s leaked draft opinion in May—a leak that was widely suspected to have been initiated by someone affiliated with the more liberal wing of the court—helped solidify the “not that bad” framing. The leak essentially functioned as a trial balloon to gauge the American public’s response to the overturning of Roe before an official decision, and it could be argued that the response proved more beneficial for conservatives who wanted to see Roe gone. While there were immediate protests after the leak, the mainstream media focused much of its attention on the identity of the leaker and how the leak itself (not the underlying barbaric opinion) was a threat to the sanctity of the Court, all while one of the most consequential rollbacks of civil rights in a generation continued unabated.
Garnet Henderson, an independent journalist and the host and producer of ACCESS, a podcast about abortion, argues that the mainstream media is minimizing the harm overturning Roe will cause because that harm disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Sadly, because overturning Roe will have outsized effects on poor and Black and Brown communities, as well as people living in red states, that damage becomes easier to isolate and ignore. “I think people in red states have been devalued for decades—otherwise we would have seen federal intervention to protect abortion access when red states started chipping away at abortion rights,” Henderson told TRNN. “I also think there is a media bias against people who live in places that white liberals see as ‘backward,’ because most people in the media are white liberals, even though they pretend to be objective and to not have political affiliations.”
Henderson also believes that abortion stigma plays into how people like Leonhardt and other mainstream media figures are able to minimize the impact abortion bans will have. “Because of abortion stigma, abortion restrictions are very abstract to most people. They don’t really consider just how horrifying it would be to be pregnant when you don’t want to be, and to have to figure out how to travel out of your state, or order pills online when your state is telling you that’s a crime, and figure out how to pay for all of that,” Henderson told TRNN. “They’re simply not engaging with the real human toll of this reality.”
Ashley Jacobs of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, an abortion fund in Kentucky (one of the states where abortion was immediately outlawed), agrees that anyone minimizing the impact overturning Roe will have is dramatically understating how much this decision will impact people’s lives, especially the lives of people living in red states. “People in red states deserve access to all forms of healthcare including abortion care,” Jacobs said. “To say it’s ‘not that bad’ is implying that people in large parts of the country aren’t worthy of the care they deserve.”
Molly Shah is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Berlin. Prior to moving to Germany Molly was an activist, teacher and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter: @MollyOShah
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