Talking Points

This Oklahoma case gives us a horrifying glimpse of the post-Roe future

What will America be like for women if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the cases that, respectively, established and upheld a constitutional right to abortion? For an answer to that question, you need look no further than the sad and outrageous story of an Oklahoma woman named Brittany Poolaw.

As Michelle Goldberg recounts in her powerful New York Times column on the case, Poolaw, then 19 years old, took marijuana and methamphetamine while pregnant and suffered a miscarriage at 17 weeks. She was then arrested, charged with first-degree manslaughter, and sent to jail for a year and a half while awaiting trial (because she couldn't afford a $20,000 bond). Earlier this month, she was convicted in a one-day trial and sentenced to four years in prison.

If prosecutors in Oklahoma can charge, convict, and imprison a woman for manslaughter following a miscarriage, how likely will they be to charge, convict, and imprison women for murder following abortions if the Supreme Court eliminates constitutional strictures on doing so? The answer is: Extremely likely — almost certain.

Goldberg notes that anti-abortion activists regularly claim they merely wish to protect the lives of the unborn, not punish women. (When Donald Trump suggested during his 2016 presidential run that women should face "some form of punishment" for terminating pregnancies, pro-life advocates tried to distance themselves from the remark.) But if abortion is murder, as pro-lifers insist, then women who procure abortions are contract killers, just as those who perform the procedures are assassins for hire and those who pay for or otherwise facilitate the acts are accomplices. An America in which numerous states treat abortion as legally and morally tantamount to murder is an America in which women are going to be arrested, convicted, and jailed for ending their pregnancies.

At least in some states. In others, women will be free to terminate their pregnancies at any point, even past viability.

It's hard to imagine a more grotesque application of federalist principles. Instead of following the example of the many other countries in the world, where women's rights override those of the fetus early on in pregnancy but give way to the rights of the unborn baby at some point after the first trimester, the United States looks likely to end up with two diametrically opposed absolutist moral universes. Red states will protect fetal rights with almost no exception while blue states will protect the rights of women with almost no exception.

That might follow from our country's polarized dividedness and satisfy the rationalists on both sides of the issue, but it makes a mockery of the tragic moral conflicts that pass right through the heart of the issue of abortion.