first published in The Seattle Times, May 20, 2022
Special to The Times
I came of age before abortion was legal, when birth control choices were limited and not widely available. This meant that every heterosexual encounter was potentially fraught with the risk of pregnancy, the ruining of a woman’s aspirations, an ill-timed wedding, the whispered fears of back alley abortions, more acute for poor women and women of color. I am of the generation that fought for and celebrated the recognition that women have the right to control their own bodies; to choose education, work, relationships, children or not; to live their lives with options and autonomy long denied by biology and culture. We called this progress.
As a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist for almost 40 years, I witnessed women making these very personal choices, each in their own private way. The issue of when life began or the right to terminate a pregnancy was understood to be a deeply personal, religious question. This was not a partisan issue; the Republican Party was pro-abortion rights until 1980, reproductive care was women’s health care.
How did the right-to-life, anti-abortion movement become the banner for our strident culture wars, the call to action for a huge lurch to the right in this country?
The arc of societal change is hard to imagine in the midst of profound cultural and political transformations. Americans are increasingly living in isolated, segregated islands of like-minded people. Although the majority of Americans favor reproductive choice, politicians, commentators on Fox News and the Supreme Court are racing to deny that right. It appears that as women chose work over early marriage, or smaller families, or moved into positions of power, or called out rape and sexual harassment, the patriarchy, a society dominated by men, became frightened.
As the populations of immigrant groups and people of color increased in the U.S., enriching our society and filling our workforce, sometimes rising to positions of authority, mostly white men felt threatened and diminished. As LGBTQ folks expanded our understanding of gender and human sexuality, cisgender — and conservative religious people — worried about the impact of these ideas on their children and perhaps the stirrings in their own conflicted hearts.
The backlash has been profound. Over the years, accessibility to abortions has been deliberately diminished, particularly in the South and Midwest. Now the politically tainted Supreme Court, its reputation sullied, is about to make the final cut. The idea that a Constitution written by white, landed, slave-owning, aristocratic men is the reference point on which Republicans stand is outrageous. In 1787, the word “woman” did not even cross those visionary but limited minds.
Fear of the other, the browning of America, the migration of populations that is part of human history, has given life to the “great replacement” theory. This idea used to be relegated to extreme right-wing zealots, but now the belief that people of color and immigrants, possibly organized by conniving Jews at the service of a cabal of pedophile elites, are being moved to the U.S. to “replace” white people and vote Democratic can even be heard in the halls of Congress.
A similar impulse has led to an attack on “critical race theory.” The view that learning U.S. history grounded in the facts of ethnic cleansing, slavery and racism belittles white people counters the reality that progress is only made when we all understand and are held accountable for the past.
We live in a country hijacked by fear: The loss of male privilege and threats to white supremacy, where that fear is being used to mobilize voters who are poisoned with misinformation and conspiracy theories. I would have more respect for the “pro-life movement” if it also actually supported universal health care, generous parental leave, free day care, well-funded public schools, and strict gun control to nourish and protect those who are already born. My fear is that the rest of us, lulled by complacency and despair, will not understand what we are losing until it is already lost.
Alice Rothchild is a physician, author and filmmaker focused on human rights and social justice. Until retirement she served as assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She is the author of “Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience.” A grandmother, she is currently writing books for children and young adults.