The Dobbs ruling on abortion didn't take rights away; it gave them back
It was the evening of June 24th, 2022, and history was being made. The famous Dobbs decision had been announced that morning, and we could sense that something was going to happen. Our fellow Utahns would be swarming the steps and vast lawn of our capitol. Whether they would be for or against the decision, my wife and I didn’t know. As we drove past, we saw that crowds indeed were gathering. Local stores must have run out of poster boards and markers. From what seemed like a mile in each direction, the protesters walked—grim, determined, and clearly dismayed by the day’s Supreme Court decision.
I finished that drive wondering how we’ll ever achieve unity on abortion. Americans seem more divided than ever. On this issue, though, it makes sense. Its foundational themes are powerful: personal autonomy against intrusion by an impersonal government on one hand, and the innocents’ right to live on the other. Both of them resonate with the vast majority of us in powerful ways. But how do we weigh them against each other? Where does one end and the other begin? There is likely no other political issue as complex, as charged, and possibly as subjective as this one.
If you see the restriction of abortion as undue government intrusion and force on a woman, especially on those with little means and major health risks, then wouldn’t you be immoral not to stand up? If you see abortion as taking a real human life, then I would fully expect you to speak out as well.
To me it’s clear that it will take generations—if ever—before we reach the critical mass of agreement on the nature of abortion and what laws, if any, should govern it. What, then, do we do in the meantime?
The Dobbs ruling isn’t what many of us wanted, but I’m convinced it’s what we need. Whether the Supreme Court left you delighted or devastated, allow me to zoom out and make the case that this was precisely the right move for our nation.
First, it served to strengthen our institutions. The court’s fresh analysis in the narrow scope of their job found Roe v. Wade to be legally flawed—that the Constitution as it now stands does not, in fact, guarantee a right to abortion.
In his written opinion, Justice Alito describes some of the problems with letting flawed Supreme Court rulings stand, and why following precedent isn’t always the answer (otherwise we’d still have racial segregation). It would be unwise to continue to build on a cracked foundation, to treat an infected wound with nothing more than band-aids.
Second, the court didn’t seize control over the abortion issue. Quite the opposite, actually. They gave it up. The opinion states, “the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
This is literally Power to the People.
I know that some readers do not feel empowered right now, as their state might have a trigger law that gives them less latitude on this issue than they had before. But let’s separate these things for a moment. The Dobbs ruling is not an abortion ban. In fact, from what I can find, it doesn’t even frown upon the practice. This was the justices handing us the keys with an apology note: “Found this in a drawer, belongs to you. Sorry for keeping it so long.”
This should be good news to both sides. For one, state control over abortion allows us to better coexist. That unity that I spoke of? We don’t need to be united on this. Whether it’s a mid-term abortion that we feel we cannot tolerate—“Not in my name, not with my tax dollars, and not in my back yard”—or the restriction of that abortion, you and I have options. An obvious one, if it’s important enough to you, is the ability to move to a state that better fits your culture, sensibilities, and nuance. We can enjoy an environment that is more stable. New York won’t need to worry about Texas influencing its decisions in this arena, and vice versa. We can be confident that we are right, and at the same time allow other states to be different. I’m not advocating for having only like-minded communities, but moving is an option.
We would do well to embrace the “laboratories of democracy,” to let each state come up with its own approach, and to crane our necks over state lines to copy our neighbor if what they’re doing seems to be working for its people.
From the start, we were never intended to have our state boundaries blur together into nothing more than orderly divisions of American land. It was okay for us to be different from each other, with only a few important things binding us together as a nation. We have gotten used to pushing decisions higher up the political ladder, which empowers us, as individuals, less.
This approach of putting all our eggs in one basket can be a problem, especially on something this divided. It’s the kind of thing that’s subject to frequent change when the other side inevitably gets back into power.
In your state, however, you might say you are at least fifty times as empowered as you are at the national level. You can get to know your local representatives. You can organize, meet locally, and build coalitions. Hence, there is more incentive to discuss and persuade at this smaller level. Winning people over instead of posting snarky memes. Learning more about your neighbors and where they’re coming from. Things like that are always healthy for society. They help us see the truth: that in their own eyes, everyone is nobly standing for the little guy, the less fortunate, those who cannot advocate for themselves. They can dispel the myths that one side wants babies to die, and the other craves control over women. There is always room for passionate discourse and strong disagreement, but the more you actually know about your opposition, the more effective you will be at persuading or opposing them.
Why am I so optimistic about the Dobbs decision? Last June wasn’t the first time I’d attended a protest like this. There was a pro-life rally in 2015 at a time when Planned Parenthood funding and its possible sale of human tissue was in the news. It was there that I met an older woman who told me of her and her daughter’s experiences with abortion. I saw the years of pain on her face as she expressed her regret and her daughter’s suicide attempts.
I wanted to hear from the other side as well. I had a specific, genuine question I wanted an answer to. It seemed that Planned Parenthood took a strong stance on aborting right up until birth, but I had heard that a late-term abortion is almost never necessary for the health of the mother. Yes, sometimes the baby may need to be removed, but I wondered, “Why not deliver the baby instead of aborting, in case it could live?”
I turned my back to the main protest going on and faced the Planned Parenthood employees who were lined up in front of their clinic. I wanted to ask them this question. I wanted to try and bridge the gap. I had my perspective, but I wanted to hear theirs. Unfortunately, they never heard from the woman I had spoken to, and I wasn’t able to get any of them to engage with me. With so much of the decision-making residing in the halls of our nation’s capital instead of here locally, why should they try?
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