It will probably be months before the Supreme Court decides, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, whether to overturn Roe v. Wade. But, in this latest round of attacks on Roe, a novel line of argument has emerged: that forced pregnancy and parenthood no longer constitute a hardship for women. Lawyers representing Mississippi, the appellant in the lawsuit, describe a world that has fundamentally changed over the past fifty years, in which the burdens of parenting have been lifted and women have been empowered to have it all—to assume a career while still raising families. As for those women who would prefer not to parent, they now have the option to simply terminate their parental rights.
In a legal brief, Mississippi described a fantasy land, where “many (largely post-dating Roe) laws protect equal opportunity—including prohibitions on sex and pregnancy discrimination in employment,” where the law guarantees parental leave, and where there is “support to offset the costs of childcare for working mothers.” The brief continued, “Sweeping policy advances now promote women’s full pursuit of both career and family.” In an interview with a local television station, the state attorney general, Lynn Fitch, added, as a flourish, “Fifty years ago, for professional women, they wanted you to make a choice. Now you don’t have to. Now you have the opportunity to be whatever you want to be. You have the option in life to really achieve your dreams, your goals, and you can have those beautiful children as well.” These would be wild claims under normal circumstances, but, in the midst of the pandemic, when child-care costs have been rising dramatically and when intermittent and impromptu school closures have forced nearly two million women out of the workforce, they are ludicrous.
According to the legal regime in Mississippi, the ability to give up one’s child for adoption cinches the final loophole in the logic of banning abortion. Justice Amy Coney Barrett added her own gloss on this claim through her questioning of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization’s lawyers, suggesting that safe-haven laws, which allow women to relinquish their infants, mean that “the obligations of motherhood” no longer “flow from pregnancy.” She continued, “It doesn’t seem to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden. And so it seems to me that the choice, more focussed, would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at twenty-three weeks, or the state requiring the woman to go fifteen, sixteen weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion.”
The powerful men and women championing an end to abortion seek to recast an unwanted pregnancy as an inconvenience for “professional women.” But rich women have always had a bounty of choices when deciding to end a pregnancy and when deciding to have children. Fitch, who likes to use her own story as a single mother of three as evidence that women can have it all, was able to afford day care and a nanny. It should go without saying that these are not options for poor and working-class women, who without access to abortion will lose their right and ability to control their own destiny. In 2014, three-quarters of abortion patients qualified as low-income or poor, according to the Guttmacher Institute. That year, Black and brown patients accounted for more than half of abortions performed.
That Dobbs originates in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, twists this fairy tale into a cruel joke. In Mississippi, nearly half of women-led households live in poverty, almost twice the national average; twelve per cent of women in the state lack health insurance, compared with eight per cent nationally. Barrett’s blithe suggestion that pregnant women simply “go fifteen, sixteen weeks more” ignores, among many burdens, that pregnant women in Mississippi die at higher rates than their peers in most states, including Louisiana and Georgia. And because this case is no longer just about Mississippi, it also ignores the fact that Black women are three to four times more at risk of dying in childbirth than white women.