Helen Weems tried to complete her sentence and then trailed off. She runs an abortion clinic in Montana, the only one in the northwestern part of the big cowboy state. She started her work there five years ago after a previous abortion clinic had been forced to close when it was vandalized beyond repair by an antiabortion activist. Helen’s husband built her a new health-care center by renovating an old train station.
The word Helen was looking for when I called her didn’t exist: a combination of absolute disbelief and complete comprehension following the leak that affirmed what she’d feared and suspected: the Supreme Court’s conservative majority is going to kill a half-century-old right to legal abortion.
I called Judith Arcana next. The news of Roe’s likely reversal “felt like last time but more frightening,” she said.
The “last time” she was referring to was the last time abortion was illegal. Half a century ago, Judith worked with a group in Chicago who called themselves the Service, which people would later call “The Jane Collective.” They facilitated abortions when the practice was illegal. Judith was arrested once. She had a carful of patients she was transporting from the meeting place to the makeshift clinic. The police were on her tail; she lost them a few times, but eventually they caught up.
She thinks for a moment. “That was May 3, 1972,” she says. “That was 50 years ago, today.”
Fifty years and then the drop.
The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion signaling the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade was published the same night as the Met Gala in New York, a self-congratulatory celebration of glamour and power taking place in the most exclusive of bubbles.
This year’s theme was “The Gilded Age,” a love letter to an era named for the thin layer of decorative gold that masked America’s corrupt, broken bits. At 8:31 p.m., Kim Kardashian was making her way to the gala’s red carpet in the dress that Marilyn Monroe had once worn to sing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. At 8:32, Politico published 98 pages of a document stating that, in every possible legal way, Roe was “egregiously wrong from the start.”
The abortion precedent had withstood body blows over those 50 years. There was the Hyde Amendment, passed just three years after Roe, which prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion. Laws were enacted in 27 states requiring waiting periods for abortion patients. “Heartbeat bills” prohibited abortions later than six weeks after a woman’s last period, at which point many women do not even realize they are pregnant.
There were many signs that abortion-care infrastructure in the United States was broken and shaky, but the gilding held it together. Roe stood.
On second thought, I think the word Helen was looking for was “Cassandra,” the priestess of Greek mythology cursed to utter true prophecies but never to be believed.
People like Helen who were paying attention knew that a right-wing court would take Roe away eventually. That is one of many reasons they were furious over the appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. They just didn’t know it would happen right now, all at once, nor had they anticipated the unscrupulous maneuverings that allowed for this court makeup to begin with.
Combine that with feckless Democrats who are so preoccupied with sportsmanlike governing that they lose the ability to govern at all. Combine that with mainstream media organizations’ often toothless “both sides” way of framing the abortion debate, when twice as many Americans believe Roe should be upheld as believe it should be overturned. Combine that with the fact that a good number of pontificators and legal experts spent last week sanctimoniously fretting about the fact of the leak rather than the contents of it.
The word Helen was looking for is a word for how it feels to know that neither the will of the majority nor the speeches of elected officials are likely to change what is about to happen — and where do you go from there?
“Republicans have been working toward this day for decades,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), speaking to protesters in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, as angry as she’d ever publicly been. “They have been out there plotting,” she continued, “carefully cultivating these Supreme Court justices so they could have a majority on the bench who would accomplish something that the majority of Americans do not want.”
Some Americans do want it, of course, and I called one of them, too — seeking, like Cassandra, a glimpse of the future: This is what antiabortion activists had been chasing. What did they think would happen now that they caught it?
Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life, an antiabortion activist group with branches in high schools and colleges around the country. She told me on the phone from Texas that when the opinion leaked, she was “covered in shivers.” She had once told her children that abortion was “when a mom decides to kill her baby,” and now she could let them know that she believed this was a big step toward it never happening again. She doesn’t believe that the abortion laws in Texas — some of the most restrictive in the land — have harmed women. She told me the overturning of Roe should be looked at as a feminist victory.
I was one of many people calling her that day. Others phoned to congratulate her. She asked them to pray for her instead. Kristan believes the end of Roe v. Wade will be the beginning of their work. The task now will be to make sure that abortion is both “illegal” and “unthinkable.”
Did you know that President Biden used to think more like Kristan than he does now?
“I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion,” he said in 1974. “I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”
A half-century later, as a Catholic Democratic president in favor of abortion rights, he still seemed to have an awkward relationship with abortion. He reportedly had never publicly uttered the word while in office until Tuesday, when he told reporters at a Des Moines airport that “the idea that we’re going to make a judgment that is going to say that no one can make the judgment to choose to abort a child, based on a decision by the Supreme Court, I think, goes way overboard.”
On one hand, he did finally say “abortion.” On the other hand, he also said “child.”
In his clumsy Biden way, the president’s mangled language had landed at the heart of the matter, which is that the aftermath of this premature revelation has been a godawful mess, and it was a godawful mess because we are arguing about what it means to be a person. To love a person, to care for a person, to make a person.
“There should be this ability to think about what it means to make a person,” Judith, the former member of the Service, told me. “And to think about what the life of the little person would be. Would it be a good life? And with some people the answer was already, ‘No.’”
By late last week, Democratic leadership was trying to come up with strategies and realizing that they had very little to offer.
Abortion could be codified by passing federal legislation, but doing so would require a 60-vote majority in the Senate, which Democrats do not have.
There was talk of expanding Medicaid to allow women to travel to abortion-friendly states for the procedure. That, too, seemed like a reach.
Protesters continued to gather outside the Supreme Court, but it was possible all they were doing was calcifying the positions of the justices inside, who might now want to prove they were independent and unswayed by public opinion.
In the middle of all of these helpless and hapless discussions, there was this: Helen went to her clinic in Whitefish, Mont.
It’s a little blue-gray building with a pitched roof and a view that backs up against the mountains.
Helen had felt called to Montana to replace the provider who had been vandalized out of business, a woman who had felt called to Montana to join a doctor whose clinic had been firebombed. That doctor had felt called to Montana from New York, where he had seen women die after shoddily performed illegal abortions.
Forty-nine years of abortion care in the Flathead Valley, the life span of three clinicians’ careers and one country’s Supreme Court decision, and Helen didn’t care whether it made sense to everyone, but, to her, abortion care was a deep act of love. It was love from her to a patient, and it was love from a patient to the children she already had or the children she might someday have, and it was love to acknowledge the complexities of life.
She went inside the clinic, and she saw a patient who’d recently received an abortion from Helen and had come for her follow-up appointment. The woman explained to Helen that she was in an abusive marriage. She wasn’t ready to leave yet but couldn’t bring a child into the relationship. She told Helen that she was so relieved that her procedure was over and that it had happened before a court ruling had made it too hard. It was already difficult enough.
Helen finished the examination and called for her next patient, and, for the moment, nothing she had done was against the law.