Bracing for a Post-Roe America
A conversation with Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist, on why many Americans believe the Supreme Court may now be our nation's greatest threat to public health.
By Michael Judge
I’d been planning for weeks to talk with Laurie Garrett—author of The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust and by far journalism’s most celebrated science writer, indeed the only writer ever to win all three of the Big “Ps” of journalism—the Pulitzer, the Peabody, and the Polk—when Politico published the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s opinion striking down Roe v. Wade.
Suddenly, my questions about what we’ve learned—or failed to learn—at this stage in the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic seemed, if not unimportant, irrelevant during one of the most furiously manic news cycles I’ve ever seen.
As the Politico exclusive revealed, “The draft opinion is a full-throated, unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision which guaranteed federal constitutional protections of abortion rights and a subsequent 1992 decision — Planned Parenthood v. Casey — that largely maintained the right.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Justice Samuel Alito writes in the draft majority opinion. “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” he continues. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”
No matter what side of this excruciatingly painful debate you’re on, there’s no denying that it touches our lives in the most intimate of ways, and the prospect that federal protection of abortion rights may soon vanish has already spurred millions to protest what they see as a high court out of step with today’s America. Those protests, and counter protests, are sure to grow in numbers, strength, and political momentum in the coming months, if not years.
So, when I reach Garrett by phone at her home in Brooklyn, whom I’ve gotten to know since 2020 in previous interviews about Covid, I suggest we leave the lessons of the pandemic on hold and focus on the news of the day. She agrees, saying, “I’ve actually been involved in this issue, in one way or another, for a very long time. Certainly, not at the depth of involvement of someone you would see with the Guttmacher Institute or Planned Parenthood, but I did work on documentaries way back in my radio days regarding questions of ‘What is life?’ ‘What is privacy?’ and ‘What does the Constitution say about all of it?’”
So, with that, we dived in—two journalists, one, a woman, born in the early 1950s; the other, a man, born in the mid-1960s, both of us trying to understand how we’ve arrived at this crucial turning point and what it means for our nation.
MJ: After the leak revealing Roe may soon be overturned, millions of Americans—men and women—now view the Supreme Court as the greatest public-health threat to the nation. How did we get here?
LG: When I was in college, Roe v. Wade had been decided and we had birth control and it seemed like we could do as we pleased, our lives were not like the lives of even my sister 10 years older than I. And we really didn’t give it a whole heck of a lot of thought one way or the other. We were able to enjoy life and enjoy pursuing careers and studies and consider the power dynamics in our relationships with men as, if not equal, at least not starting from the fundamental point of saying the woman is a “vessel” first and foremost.
And when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and brought C. Everett Koop in as U.S. Surgeon General, we began to realize that, wait a second, maybe this isn’t all written in stone, and maybe we won’t continue to have these rights; maybe the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe was just a passing, fleeting moment. Koop had been a pediatric surgeon, mostly neonatal, and had been very moved by what he had seen with babies and felt that tremendous breakthroughs had been made in the 1970s and early ’80s that allowed surgical interventions to keep extremely premature and C-section babies alive. He felt that he and his colleagues had the toolkit to go all the way back to 21 weeks. But in the late 1970s, he and Francis Schaeffer made a film called “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” In it they traveled to Auschwitz, used baby dolls as props, and said something like every day we are murdering more than twice the number that died in one day here in Auschwitz. And I remember seeing it and thinking if anybody’s really taking this seriously, this is terrifying. And then he gets appointed Surgeon General.
Back in those days, at least in Koop’s case, the thinking had consistency to it. Which is to say he was 100% opposed to abortion on grounds that were both moral and reflected his background as a pediatric surgeon. And he was consistent about it. He also wanted social services for poor mothers to help them raise their children. And he wanted social services that would help educate teenage girls about how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, contraception, and so on.
I’m curious, you were saying how C. Everett Koop had a more compassionate view than what people have today. I was thinking of the March of Dimes, which began under the FDR administration. I don’t think my mother, who was born in 1936 and had me in 1966, saw any contradiction in being pro-choice and being a huge proponent of the March of Dimes.
It’s interesting you bring up this link between the March of Dimes and the abortion issue. C. Everett Koop came to it with a sense that prematurity is no longer the bugaboo it was at 30 weeks, at 28 weeks, at 20 weeks. He also had great compassion for HIV-positive mothers and babies born HIV positive. And I believe he was sincere in that. Now, with recent scientific advances, some genetic traits are correctable either in utero or immediately post-birth. And now along comes CRISPR [a revolutionary gene editing system that could, according to Scientific American, do everything from “resurrect extinct species to develop cures for chronic disease]. I don’t know if you saw this clearly criminal case of the Chinese scientist who attempted to use CRISPR to do in utero alteration of babies so that they would be resistant to HIV? At any rate, I think we are headed down a path where more and more medical interventions will call into question one set of rationales in favor of abortion that have to do with the pain and suffering side of things of giving birth to a child that can’t possibly survive for more than a few months and where that period of life would be hideous, almost certainly painful, and never allow the child to thrive and move forward. But I don’t think anybody in the women’s choice movement is doing themselves any favors by clinging to those issues. And I don’t think that, fundamentally, those are the issues.
By the way, I had a Twitter experience recently that actually was very enlightening for me in a weird and anger provoking way. Ian Bremmer had posted one of his typical national-security G7 tweets, but this one said something to the effect that America is the most divided country in the world, and this SCOTUS leak will lead to more division which will further undermine our credibility and stature in the G7 and the world. And I basically counter-tweeted saying, well, this is all true, but frankly, at this moment, I’m far less concerned about what the G7 thinks of us than what’s going to happen over the next 30-plus days inside the United States of America. I really don’t think that the best way to respond to this is “How does the U.S. sit side-by-side with Germany?” I think it’s much more about how does any woman feel in America today. What do my two X chromosomes do for me in America 30 days from now? And some guy reacted by tweeting, “I would’ve thought you’d gone through menopause by now and this would not be an issue for you.” After screaming, I thought, well, here we go, we’re back to the “vessel.”
“To think of womanhood as defined by childbirth definitely demeans the human you’re talking about. There’s no way to define womanhood as being solely about childbirth, or primarily about childbirth, without limiting female rights, power, and relative balance vis-à-vis men in social stature. There’s just no way.”
That same issue often arises when discussing issues of gender identity within the LGBTQ community. Some people say out loud, or to themselves, well, that person can’t be a “woman” if they can’t carry a child or give birth.
Which is a horrible thing to say, given, for example, the fact that I have a very close friend who has had 10 miscarriages, until finally every doctor said to her, it would be medical malpractice for us to keep trying to get you pregnant. To think of womanhood as defined by childbirth definitely demeans the human you’re talking about. There’s no way to define womanhood as being solely about childbirth, or primarily about childbirth, without limiting female rights, power, and relative balance vis-à-vis men in social stature. There’s just no way. I mean, you don’t have to go all the way to The Handmaid’s Tale, but you certainly cannot imagine a woman as an equal. I thought right away of this fellow saying to me that I’d gone through menopause, so he would basically be arguing that once I’m no longer of reproductive age, I don’t have standing. And, of course, then what’s the implication of that? Well, since a 90-year-old man can theoretically get a 16-year-old girl pregnant, then men have standing until they drop dead. But women only have standing for as long as they can serve as an effective vessel.
That’s one of the reasons I found President Biden’s response so interesting. Very clearly, he feels that their real goal is to take down Griswold v. Connecticut [the 1965 Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to privacy involving the use of contraceptives, which set the stage for the main argument in Roe v. Wade.] In the leaked ruling, Alito derisively mentions Griswold as well as Casey and Roe. It’s a slippery slope to then taking out interracial marriages, taking out gay marriages, taking out contraception. Almost everything that you can think of that is a court decision that’s been really revolutionary for American society in the last 40 years has operated on the assumption that there is some concept of personal privacy protected in the Constitution.
So where does that take us next?
The states that are eroding abortion access are also states that are eroding Medicaid, setting bars for Medicaid access that are insane. As you know, states get to set their standard of poverty and where above or below the poverty line you can be in order to qualify for Medicaid. And, not surprisingly, it’s mostly the Southern states and some key Midwest states that set the bar so low that you cannot own a car, you can’t own a home, you can’t have any assets to speak of, and your situation must be so dire that it’s amazing you even have the wherewithal to get to see a doctor at all.
We’ve already been eroding access to healthcare in the same states that are now passing laws and hoping that their laws will stand up to the Supreme Court and the decisions will rule in their favor that basically compel women to have babies no matter what. And when you get to a point where you are compelled to have your father’s child, your rapist’s child—but no social services will be provided to you—you’re on your own. Say you’re 15. You’re going to be kicked out of high school and you’re going to go work as a waitress around the corner where you’re going to be harassed and you’re going to see your rapist every day; you’re going to see your incestual relative every day. Or you’ll commit suicide. I mean, what are we doing?
That reminds me of that heart-breaking and controversial 2019 Caitlin Flanagan piece in The Atlantic, “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate.” In it she writes about a postwar Lysol advertisement that basically encourages women to use the household disinfectant as an abortifacient because [in the words of the ad above] they “Just can’t face it again!” Lysol, the ad clearly emphasizes, is “effective, even in the presence of organic matter.”
“What could make a married woman living during the great postwar Baby Boom unable to face one more pregnancy?” Flanagan asks. “Start making a list of the possible reasons, and you might never stop. Maybe she’d had terrible pregnancies and traumatic births and she couldn’t go through another one. Maybe she had suffered terribly from postpartum depression, and she’d just gotten past it. Maybe her husband was an angry or violent man; maybe he had a tendency to blame her when she got pregnant. Maybe she had finally reached the point in her life when her youngest was in school and she had a few blessed hours to herself each day, when she could sit in the quiet of her house and have a cup of coffee and get her thoughts together. And maybe—just maybe—she was a woman who knew her own mind and her own life, and who knew very well when something was too much for her to bear.”
You can add to that list. Maybe she didn’t think she’d make a good mother. Maybe she knew she wasn’t a skilled mother. Maybe she... I mean, the list is huge.
Maybe she had schizophrenia. Maybe she had bipolar disorder. Maybe… The point is, it’s not the list. The point is she knows as a human being and as a woman what she can and cannot bear.
Let me just throw one other public-health issue into the mix. That is that the very same legal minds that historically have doubted the authenticity of constitutional protection of privacy and opposed contraception and abortion have also chimed in in favor of extremely punitive actions ordered by the state to intervene with a pregnant woman who was on crack, a pregnant woman who was addicted to heroin. And in some cases, pregnant women, mostly of color, with criminal histories. So you have on the one hand this notion that the state will protect the fetus at all costs. And you have on the other hand this notion that the state must protect society from crack babies, from Black homicidal genes, from all sorts of things that come from the same sort of font of white fear.
Right. Yeah. Well, on that note…
Why don’t we call it a day?
Yes, let’s call it a day. And you could always just end it with Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter. Because it seems we’re back to those days.
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