I should never have experienced rape and illegal abortion. Neither should anyone else
The dismantling of Roe v. Wade isn’t a faraway dystopian nightmare for me. It’s a deeply personal memory.
I was just 17 when, on Labor Day weekend 1972, I was raped at gunpoint in a wooded area not far from my father’s home.
Afterward, the rapist threatened to shoot me as I ran through the trails and trees, blinded by tears, propelled by trauma and terror. I made it to the street where I stumbled, miles from home, until I found a phone booth and a dime to call my mother.
Once home, I ran to the shower to scald it out of me.
Like most Black rape victims, I opted not to report it to the police.
Even before I missed my period, my Yiddishe mama studied my face and said, “You’re pregnant.” We didn’t discuss options or possibilities. Abortion was illegal.
I’ll never know how she — an elegant, proper, working-class single mother — knew where to go. It didn’t occur to me to wonder what it cost her (or where she got the money) financially or emotionally. She took me to a dreary off-road storefront where a scowling white male doctor scraped me out while growling at me to “relax” and “stay still.”
It sounded and felt so much like the rape itself. I got through it the same way: by disassociating from my body and the pain in an effort to simply survive.
That night, I was feverish, dizzy, wracked with abdominal pain. Mom sped back to that doctor and lit him up. He examined me and announced that a cyst on my ovary had ruptured. He scraped some more, and prescribed an antibiotic, never taking responsibility or apologizing.
I don’t wish any aspect of my experience on anyone.
It felt like progress when, in January 1973, not long after my ordeal, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 to uphold a woman’s right to a legal abortion. Now, the court has rolled back that right with profound implications for millions of women, especially Black women, who have never had full body autonomy in this country.
I first saw the difference when integrating a wealthy white high school. The white girls went to Mexico or Canada over the weekend and came back to share their abortion tales. I don’t recall ever hearing any Black girls even utter the word. Those who got pregnant gave birth to, and kept, their babies.
Back then, a 1976 report from Family Planning Perspectives on illegal abortions stated that “Women who died as a result of illegal abortions typically were Black, were more than 12 weeks pregnant, and had self-induced in their own community.”
Once abortions were legal, I accompanied a few of my Black friends to a local place where they exercised their newfound choice in a place that was clean, safe, and medically reliable. Afterward, I held them close, wincing at the sting of their tears on my memories.
While the reversal of Roe v. Wade hits all women hard, Black women face special dangers. We’re already living with the constant weight of centuries of intergenerational sexual trauma, woven through our DNA from enslavement, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, which contributes to a long list of health disparities exacerbated by the stress of continued everyday racism.
So this new ruling hits us especially hard. Experts cite the disproportionate impact expected on Black women and other women of color, “who have traditionally faced overwhelming costs and logistical obstacles in obtaining reproductive healthcare.”
This brings yet another threat to Black lives. Black women in the United States, regardless of income or education levels, “are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women,” reports the National Partnership for Women and Families. Abortion bans could increase these tragic losses by 33%, compared to 21% for the general population, according to a Duke University study.
Location plays a role, too.
At least 11 states have heavily restricted abortion or made it illegal since Friday’s Supreme Court decision. Twelve more states have similar laws in place, with several others appearing likely to follow suit, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute, a group that favors abortion rights.
“The states most likely to ban abortion have greater proportions of people of color,” NPR reports – and “about 60% of people obtaining abortions are people of color.”
Banning abortion could also exacerbate economic disparities. The Black Women’s Health Imperative states that “the single most cited reason Black women give for abortion care is the inability to afford a child.” Lack of safe, legal abortions mean that “they and their children would likely be condemned to a lifetime of poverty and poor health outcomes.”
The racist roots of the abortion ban are clear. Beyond gender dynamics, these laws are designed to maintain white supremacy, which never hesitates to exploit Black bodies and lives to maintain power. This recent ruling is driven at least in part by the browning of America. While white people made up around 64% of the nation in 2010, that number dropped to around 58% in the 2020 Census — the first such decrease in Census history.
The logic is simple: Because white people cannot maintain power as a minority in the “majority rules” system that they created, the government is working to increase the white birth rate by any means necessary.
I watch white women stressing over the new ruling with a jaded eye, since around 47% of them voted for Trump in 2016, and an estimated 55% did the same in 2020, according to the Washington Post.
Living at the intersection of racial and sexist discrimination, the horrors I experienced a half-century ago feel alarmingly present now, especially as Justice Clarence Thomas suggests that the Court reconsider access to contraception and same-sex relationships and marriage.
I have a young adult daughter. With her choices threatened, the political is even more deeply personal. And the dynamics of the racial divide loom large.
Jews who identify as white, even while living in the crosshairs of white supremacist violence, must consider their role in this dynamic. Anyone who truly wants democracy must be willing to address the systemic commitment to white supremacy that underlies these threats to all our rights.
Otherwise, as James Baldwin famously wrote in a 1970 letter to Angela Davis, “if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”