Opinion

The Texan women saved by the Supreme Court

Here's what the Texas abortion ruling really means

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Texas law known as HB2 poses a "substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions," placing an "'undue burden' on their constitutional right to do so." The decision is a major victory for abortion rights advocates — but more directly, it's a major victory for individual women.

Not yet, of course. Right now the legacy of HB2 still means that 900,000 Texans of child-bearing age live a 300-mile round trip from their nearest abortion provider — six to eight hours of driving there and back, plus the cost of a tank of gas, and likely at least one lost day of work. And abortion, rather famously, is one of those things that can't be long put off. We may not know their names or faces, but there are many women living in Texas today for whom SCOTUS's decision has already come too late.

Abortion opponents would have you believe that life itself lies at the heart of this debate, and they're not wrong — but it's not the lives of as-yet-unborn people. At the heart of the abortion debate are the lives of already-in-existence people, people who, for whatever reason, have decided not to carry a pregnancy to term.

The discourse of culture wars tends to center on the most vulnerable — in this case, women who everyone agrees deserve a break. We focus on victims of rape or incest, or on pregnancies that are nonviable for mother or fetus. Only a very few Americans would insist that a 13-year-old carry her father's child, for instance, or that a woman knowingly choose to die in childbirth.

But life is so much more than the instant between breathing and not-breathing, so much more than surviving the worst we can imagine. Life is the daily act of constructing meaning for ourselves, as we understand "meaning" — not as we're told to understand it by someone else.

Life is going to college (or not, if you don't want to). Life is building a satisfying career or barely getting by on minimum wage or saving for retirement. Life sometimes includes depression, physical limitation, or spouses who have lost their jobs. When we're very, very lucky, life is joyous; for some of us, joy doesn't include having a child. Sometimes life is the split-second between ecstasy and a condom failing.

When we insist that the wages of sex are a life lived in servitude to reproduction, we reduce living human beings to body parts. They're no longer people — they're vessels, and whatever dreams, desires, or needs they may have can only come second to their existence as incubators.

It's telling, of course, that no one ever seems to expect the same dedication from those who provide the sperm in these transactions. Women cannot become fetus incubators without men doing their part, and though we now live in a brave new world in which sperm can meet egg in any number of ways, it's still mostly achieved through heterosexual sex. The incubators aren't the only ones making choices — they're just the only ones expected to shoulder the consequences.

In recent years, anti-abortion forces have been doing all they can to hack away at abortion rights until they functionally no longer exist. Texas' HB2 limited abortion by constricting the ability of providers to do their work, requiring that abortion clinics maintain ambulatory surgical center standards and abortion doctors have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Michigan and Pennsylvania currently require the former; Tennessee requires the latter; Missouri requires both. The effect of these and literally hundreds of other laws that have been introduced or passed in state houses across the country has been to rewrite the lives of countless women without their consent. We'll never know for how many it's meant devastation.

Indeed, almost no one has ever studied what happens to women seeking to end a pregnancy but forced by circumstances to bring it to term. Diana Greene Foster, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, has tried to bridge that gap and found that women who were denied abortions because they'd just missed the gestational deadline were not only less healthy than a comparative group who'd made the cut-off date, they were also three times as likely to live in poverty two years after giving birth. Real lives, really changed.

A fetus is not a person; a fetus is the potential for life. For some women, the decision to terminate that potential is difficult — it was for me — but other women are never in doubt. Either way, no woman should ever have to justify her decision to anyone with whom she doesn't share it. My life and the lives of all women are greater, are more important, are more sacred, than the suggestion of life.

Over the next week, month, and year, as we watch Texas and the rest of the country react to Monday's ruling, countless more women will have their lives decided for them, against their wills. Make no mistake: Theirs are the lives that actually stand at the heart of the abortion debate. Those are the lives we should be fighting for.

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