Roe has been a doctrine all my life. When I graduated from high school, senior year’s photos were recorded in a memory book. One of the pages invited us to imagine our career and salary 10 years in the future. I predicted that I would become a lawyer making a very realistic $35,000 a year. I wasn’t stupid. I knew race and gender could make that much harder to achieve. It never occurred to me that I should temper my ambitions because I was a girl.
In one lifetime, Roe had pushed women into the paid job market so completely that it was common for high school students to be asked to answer a genderless question about their economic aspirations. Flipping through that book today feels like reading a fairy tale, the old Grimm books and not the new Disney stories.
I grew up choosing where and how I work because, for example, Roe v. Wade gave me many of the same basic personality rights as men. Millions of women, to varying degrees, have been able to do the same.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been overthrown, we do not have the same rights in all labor markets. In a global market, an authorized worker is someone who can migrate. With Dobbs, women can’t assume we can work safely in Idaho the same way we can in Oregon or Washington. I cannot negotiate wages or time off with an employer with the same risk profile as those who cannot conceive. An employer offering lower wages in a state with abortion care is indirectly benefiting from women’s inability to take our labor in the open market across the country. Thanks to a rogue court, women’s lives are now more determined by the mishaps of our birth than they were a week ago.
Those birth accidents include describing women’s lives by making them dependent on corporate benevolence. Some companies, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, immediately issued statements that they would offer employees reimbursements for travel for abortion services. The generosity of Dick’s and other companies is remarkable. But it requires women to disclose their health status to a boss they must hope is well-intentioned. That doesn’t say anything about hoping that business management or leadership doesn’t change. Well-meaning employers can come and go. They also differ in how good they are in terms of their employee support commitments.
The End of Roe v. Wade
Commentary from Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
Months before the decision was officially made, Starbucks also issued a statement expressing support for workers seeking abortion care. But the statement adds that it cannot guarantee that benefit to workers in union stores. Union drives at Starbucks have increased workers’ power. Many of those employees are women and people who could become pregnant. Ability to link abortion care support to non-union labor is a perfect example of why corporations should not be human rights arbiters.
Majority opinion in Dobbs argues that it merely makes the right to abortion a state decision. In reality, the judges make it a business privilege. A society cannot be held together when half the population has to rely so heavily on the kindness of strangers to do something as basic as work.
Economy, labor and jobs are more important than money. Jobs and income are the basic units of US citizenship, in practice. With jobs we earn dignity. Income is one way we finance the state, through taxes and production. Jobs are also the state’s way of giving its responsibility to us, relying on employers to provide goods such as health care and social security.
For just 58 years of the country’s 246-year-old economy, thanks to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, women have been able to take advantage of the full citizenship we effectively acquire through our jobs. We have been able to migrate from the south to the north and west in search of better wages and more opportunities. Access to abortion offered women more and better economic opportunities, and those economic opportunities made women more viable in the eyes of the law. We have cobbled together economic opportunities, albeit for less pay than men, yes. But any paid work made us freer by making us more whole in the eyes of courts and institutions.
Today we pay a higher price for that freedom than men. And it is a prize that our children will inherit. Many people celebrating Dobbs’ decision nostalgia for a pre-World War II American economy. That economy prevented women from competing with men in the paid job market. It also relied on unions to protect working class incomes. That economy is gone. This economy will not magically produce good jobs and good wages for men who pass that on to their wives and children.
As a black woman, I inherited the debts that white racism claimed from the livelihood of my grandparents and great-grandparents and their great-grandparents. I know very well what that legacy feels like. It makes your life poorer. It makes your communities poorer. And it damns a society.
That we are all less free than Thursday is, even now, a cliché. But in fact, that applies more to poor women and trans men than to others. Do not confuse specific damage with local damage. When women cannot move freely through this country, convinced that they have basic human rights while migrating, we are all entrenched in the poverty of their choices.
Even worse days are ahead. By all accounts, the destruction of Roe v. Wade is only the beginning of decisions that could reverse hard-won human rights for all Americans. Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that LGBTQ rights, access to contraception and privacy in health care could be in the crosshairs of the court.
I’m still reeling from waking up to a new world. But that feeling cannot solidify into indolence. We can and should donate to organizations that provide abortion services in local communities. At the same time, donations will not save us. Consumer citizenship has taught us to see our politics as a series of transactions that we can buy like we buy a car or a new pair of shoes. Restoring human rights requires immediate political commitment and massive resistance. I’m not particularly hopeful.
Judge Samuel Alito wrote the majority decision. Journalist Stephanie Mencimer wrote in Mother Jones that it would always be “Alito” who would write the majority decision. Alito says the court can’t worry about the impact of his decisions on people. Linda Greenhouse in The Times described the view as arrogant. I expect arrogance from a conservative court. It’s more important to me that the decision is so bold.
This is a court that is not afraid of the electorate and is not ashamed to show its hand. The emperor doesn’t care that he’s not wearing any clothes. Nancy Pelosic reads a poem† President Biden has made a lukewarm commitment to women’s rights. No one seems afraid of the people. That is the fault of the people.
The struggle is now shifting to the states, where many legal scholars do not know how to interpret this new reality. Some states struggle with who has which authority. Other states want to refuse to implement Dobbs’ dictates, but don’t know how. We should be there to determine what life after Roe v. Wade will be like. It will be difficult. Setbacks are certain. But there is no other way forward and so many ways back.
Tressie McMillan Cotton (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at the Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow.
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