The Supreme Court, with one day remaining in this term, handed down a long and nervously awaited decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The decision is a huge win for women (and other people who need access to abortion, like trans men) across the nation.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt is the most important abortion case to come before the Supreme Court in decades.
At issue was Texas’ omnibus abortion bill, HB2, two TRAP provisions of which were central to this case: 1) The requirement for abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital; and 2) The requirement that abortion facilities comply with the requirements for ambulatory surgical centers.
There was an enormous amount at stake in this case: The number of clinics serving the entire population of Texas would have fallen to 10 or fewer, had the restrictions been allowed to go fully into effect.
But in very good news, the Supreme Court invalidated the Texas abortion restrictions. The joyful responses came quickly.
Amy Hagstrom Miller, Founder and CEO, Whole Woman’s Health, the plaintiff in the case: “Every day Whole Woman’s Health treats our patients with compassion, respect and dignity—and today the Supreme Court did the same. We’re thrilled that today justice was served and our clinics stay open.”
Hillary Clinton: “The Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt is a victory for women across America. By striking down politically motivated restrictions that made it nearly impossible for Texans to exercise their full reproductive rights, the Court upheld every woman’s right to safe, legal abortion, no matter where she lives.”
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America: “We are thrilled that these dangerous provisions have been struck down. This is a win for women. Every person must have the right to make their own personal decisions about abortion, and we will fight like hell to ensure they do.”
Wendy Davis, the former Texas State Senator who famously filibustered Senate Bill 5 almost three years ago to the day:
Fifth circuit is reversed!!! #WholeWomansHealth
— Wendy Davis (@wendydavis) June 27, 2016
This is truly a celebratory day for people who need access to abortion.
The decision was an incredibly important win for choice — and a powerful commentary on how the nation values women. Our health, our safety, our autonomy, and our lives.
I was born the year after Roe v. Wade was decided, and from the time I was old enough to comprehend even the most cursory facts of abortion law, I understood, even before I could articulate it, that whether my government allowed me control over my own body and the agency to make decisions about my own reproduction communicated how much I was respected and valued as a full human being.
My very first public act of political resistance was leading a walkout in my 8th grade confirmation class in protest of a minister who wanted to show us a graphic anti-abortion film. I was officially labeled a troublemaker, and the minister told me I would be pregnant or dead by the time I was 16. I was neither.
I have always understood intimately that abortion law is not, and has never been, just about access to abortion, but also about how we value women.
For as long as I can recall, I have heard that the anti-choice position is about valuing life — but that language of life virtually always refers to fetuses and never to the people who carry them.
The worth and quality of my life is greater when I am afforded autonomy, agency, consent, and choice.
I am eminently willing to concede that people can have a good faith disagreement about when human life begins, but that has absolutely no bearing on resolving the dispute over legal, safe, and accessible abortion.
My life, right now, is not so precious that any other human being could be compelled to use their body to support mine for the next nine months (at least). No other human being is obliged to give up an organ for me, even if it would save my life. Nor bone marrow, nor blood, nor skin. People who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are being asked to do something no other people are asked to do for another person, which exposes the truth of the anti-choice position: Fetuses are valued more highly than the people who carry them.
It is an inescapable result of that position that I would feel devalued. A living, breathing, thinking adult woman whose life is considered to be worth less than a potential life.
Here, then, is how we resolve this disagreement: By not making an exception for the sustenance of fetal life that we make for no other life.
It isn’t as though there isn’t precedent in our existing law and culture. We institutionally value lives differently, some more than others, all the time. We value lives of US citizens more than the lives of non-USians. We value the lives of inmates less than the lives of the free population (among whom are many highly-rewarded perpetrators of white-collar crimes). We value the lives of the wealthy more than the poor. We value the lives of people we allow to live without healthcare access less than the lives of those who by fate or fortune have health insurance. And these are only the valuations that can and do routinely mean a visible difference between life and death.
Which is to say nothing of all the identity-based valuations of lives that have repercussions small and large and sometimes deadly, too.
But the lawmakers and judges that legislatively prioritize American, ostensibly law-abiding, wealthy, healthcare-having lives over others are largely very privileged men. And we are expected to understand that their agreement to globally prioritize their own lives over everyone else’s is Moral Values, and an individual woman’s choice to value her life over a fetus is murder.
The “when does life begin” debate is used to obfuscate the reality that we routinely make valuations about different lives, some rightly and some wrongly. There are people who use that debate to attempt to pretend that abortion is an entirely unique scenario, and thus cannot be easily resolved. And no one knows this better than the architects of the anti-choice movement, who qualify fetal life as “innocent life,” as opposed to the soiled lives of, say, the people whose lives were cut short because we lacked the political will to fund effective levees or repair a crumbling bridge.
It is a misdirection to contend this argument is really about an irreconcilable disagreement over when life begins. It doesn’t matter even if life does begin at conception. The calculus thus simply becomes which life matters more, which is an assessment we are willing to make in dozens of other situations across our political and cultural landscape.
The question is not really when life begins. The question is whether we recognize women and other people with uteri as humans whose lives have intrinsic value and the rights of autonomy, agency, consent, and choice. It is only because such a vast swath of our population cannot or will not answer a resounding and unqualified “yes” to that question that there is even space for an obfuscating debate about when life begins.
Today, the Supreme Court made a decision that says women’s lives have value; that women’s choices have value; that women’s agency has value.
That was not the question put before the Court, and yet that question is embedded in every decision regarding abortion law.
Today, I celebrate that abortion access will not be eroded. And I celebrate that my country has made one small but critically important step in honoring the value of women’s lives.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)