Updated: Aug 22
America’s chilling retreat to the past
The Supreme Court joined in the assault of women
In a 5-4 decision on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that permitted abortions during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. This regressive decision was courtesy of far-right Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Coney Barrett, and Cavanaugh, all of whom during their confirmation hearings expressed in one way or another that Roe v. Wade was settled precedent they would not overrule. But they did, using the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization as a launch pad, so to speak. In Dobbs, the case targeted a Mississippi law that bars most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a standard that violates Roe v. Wade. Alito wrote that Roe was not decided correctly. The precedent was trashed overnight.
Birth control: as old as history
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, may have been the first to proposed using natural chemicals such as cedar oil, lead ointment, for frankincense oil as spermicides.
In his memoirs, Casanova (1725-1798) describes his experimental forms of birth control using the empty rind of half a lemon as a primitive cervical cap.
In 1827, scientists discovered the existence of the human ovum (egg). Prior to that, scientists had only known that sperm must enter the female body for pregnancy to occur.
The Comstock Laws
Anthony Comstock was head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, established in 1872 and financed by several wealthy philanthropists. Comstock lobbied against adultery, premarital sex, and other so-called vices. In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act, an anti-obscenity act that designated contraceptives as obscene material and outlawed their dissemination via the postal service or interstate commerce.
Sanger and McCormick
The story of Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick is somewhat long and involved, but are summarized here:
Sanger was a New York City nurse who, in 1912, wished there was a “magic pill” to prevent pregnancy. She ran afoul of the Comstock Laws with the June 1914 issue of her then-radical journal, The Woman Rebel, where she penned the term "birth control."
Two years after fleeing from her charges to England, Sander returned to New York, where authorities dropped her charges. She opened the country’s first birth control clinic, which was promptly raided.
In 1917, Sanger met Katharine McCormick, a wealthy woman who began to support Sanger’s cause.
In the case of People [of New York] v. Margaret Sanger, Judge Frederick Crane ruled that physicians could supply contraceptive materials to married couples, but upheld Sanger’s conviction because she wasn’t a physician.
At 72 years old, Sanger convinced Professor Gregory Pincus, an ovulation and hormone expert, to collaborate with her to develop the “magic pill.” With her considerable wealth, Katharine McCormick personally funded what became The Pill Project.
Whereas many praised Sanger’s work on birth control, it’s notable that she sullied her reputation by becoming involved with the eugenics movement and the elimination of what she called the “dysgenic horror story” of black people, who she said reproduced “carelessly and disastrously.” In 2020, Planned Parenthood Of Greater New York removed Sanger’s name from their Manhattan office.
In 1954, Gregory Pincus joined forces with Harvard obstetrician-gynecologist John Rock to create the first “magic pill.” The first version, Enovid by the Searle drug company, was approved for therapeutic purposes in 1959, and a year later for contraception.
In 1965, Estelle Griswold, the director of the Connecticut Planned Parenthood, and Dr. Lee Buxton at Yale Medical School were arrested for opening four Planned Parenthood clinics. The case of Griswold v. Connecticut made its way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the Comstock Laws with the decision that it was unconstitutional to restrict access to birth control because it interfered with a person’s right to privacy.
In the current political climate and the presence of right extremists on the Court, that constitutional right to access birth control might very well go away sooner than one might think. No one should be surprised if Griswold is overturned by SCOTUS and something exactly like the Comstock Laws is revived to return us right back to the 19th century. Most western countries strive to be better and become more progressive and inclusive every day. The United States of America is moving in the opposite direction.
The Pill: a blessing or another assault on women?
At a time when women’s consciousness was giving rise to feminism and the women’s liberation movement (derisively called “women’s lib”) in the 1960s, the contraceptive pill gave women a new financial independence and/or the ability to join the work force. On the face of it, the Pill and the women’s movement might have seemed a perfect fit. But there are two sides to the Pill, as it were. Its history is laden with the damage and danger to which it exposed women--most prominently blood clots, thrombophlebitis, and pulmonary embolism. For a long time, neither drug companies nor physicians informed their female patients of this major, potentially lethal health hazard.
Roe v. Wade
In 1970, 22-year-old Norma McCovey (1947-2017), who became known as “Jane Roe” to protect her identity, sued District Attorney of Dallas County, Texas, for enforcing a state law that prohibited abortion except to save the pregnant woman’s life. Roe claimed the Texas law violated her constitutional right to personal privacy. The 7-2 opinion found an absolute right of a woman to an abortion during the first trimester, whereas the government could regulate abortion in the second trimester, but not ban it.
In the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court held that a Pennsylvania law requiring spousal awareness prior to obtaining an abortion was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment, because it created an undue burden on married women seeking an abortion. The basic framework of Roe was left intact.
Along came June 24, 2022. Using the decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that sided with Dobbs’s denial of abortion beyond fifteen weeks, SCOTUS held that both Roe and Casey had been wrongly decided, and that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. In one fell swoop, they erased an almost 50-year-old law.
How did we get here?
Overturning Roe was no overnight phenomenon. For almost fifty years since the decision, right-wing politicians and others have been working up to this moment while progressives were dozing at the switch. TFG (the former guy) in the presidency who, along with other white cisgender heterosexual males, brought toxic masculinity to the White House, was a boon to the far right as he filled positions in the Court with far right activists. But other factors have contributed to the furious assault on women.
The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013, and came into high prominence after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in plain view of the world. This period of protest and marches was intolerable to the right wing, particularly white, cis-male heterosexual (WCMH) politicians who could hardly wait for the chance to strike back with a vengeance.
The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault on women also stuck in the craw of conservatives and male supremacists, primarily (again) WCMHs. Taking revenge against women as they feign concern for the unborn fetus, these extremists are relatively unconcerned if a 10-year-old girl is raped, impregnated, and then forced to carry the fetus to term. In many states there will be no exceptions made for cases of rape or incest. Will they pay taxes to support women who can’t afford another child, or can’t bear the financial burden of caring for a newborn with multiple anomalies? Of course not. Once a child is born, his or her life and that of the mother is of no concern whatsoever to right-wing extremists.
What should be done?
Whether the Roe overturn will ever be re-overturned is unknown, but for now, there should be consequences for the decision, whether it’s an ingenious maneuver like the pregnant woman who drove in the HOV lane because there were two “people” in the vehicle; or suing a state or other entity for care of a fetal child with lethal genetic defects or a born child with severe anomalies. Going forward, the post-Roe era will raise thorny issues that pro-lifers didn’t even remotely imagine. Careful what you wish for. You may not like what you get.