The recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case achieved something the right has pursued for decades—overturning Roe v. Wade. From legislation recognizing “fetal personhood” in Georgia and Alabama to a new Louisiana law that outlaws sending abortion pills in the mail, state legislatures are wasting no time finding new ways to criminalize and surveil abortion. In an age of Big Data and digital surveillance, the coming crackdown could lead to a future even bleaker than the days before Roe v. Wade. In this episode of The Marc Steiner Show, Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, lays out just what our new reality means for reproductive rights in the United States.
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Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. What is happening politically in our country today can be overwhelming and deeply troubling. The Supreme Court summer recess has just begun, and what a profoundly earth shattering session it has been. We’ll be grappling with what the court did and what battles lie ahead in the coming months. And today, we take another look at Roe. At the right for women in our country to have an abortion. To the judicially inspired criminalization of abortion, how to end it, and all that comes with it. It feels like once again, I have to be part of the abortion underground. In some ways more terrifying than it was before 1973. Before Roe.
One powerful, no holds barred, take no prisoner in depth analysis was done in an essay entitled “Life After Roe Will be Worse Than We Feared”. It was penned for The Nation in her subject for debate column by the author, activist, and writer, Katha Pollitt. Katha’s an amazing writer whose satirical punches at the absurdity we face are full of the power of what we must reckon with. She’s won numerous awards and authored three books, and joins us today. Welcome back Katha. Good to have you with us and good to see you.
Katha Pollitt: Hi Marc. Thanks so much for having me on the show.
Marc Steiner: So let’s begin. I mean, you really went hard on the attack, but this is a moment that I think maybe even 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we would not imagine to have happened. But it has, and it’s shattering.
Katha Pollitt: Well, some people deep in the abortion rights world did see this coming even 20 years ago. That so much of the abortion story has been the whittling away of rights, which have been upheld by various courts. I mean, you had six or seven states with only one clinic. And given that, it’s really hard to get an abortion in those states. And people were just driving very long distances. And already there were NGOs that were set up to help women travel from places like Texas and the Deep South, even before all this. But of course, this is a whole other level of horrible because it’s estimated that eventually there will be abortion bans or near bans in 26 states. More than half the states. And then there’s all this other stuff about attempts to criminalize sending abortion pills, criminalize leaving to go get an abortion.
Like if you live in a banned state, you shouldn’t be able to go to another state and get one. This is insane. This is completely contrary to our traditions and our Constitution and everything. That if there is no way in which if you go to another state and do something that’s legal in that state your home state gets to arrest you. That’s why people can go to Las Vegas and gamble even if they live in a state where gambling is illegal, et cetera. So there’s going to be all this law that’s going to… People trying to do very arcane and new things to further restrict abortion.
Marc Steiner: I mean, it feels like in some ways the devolution to the states is almost like going back to the negative roots of the founding of this country.
Katha Pollitt: I see what you mean. And it’s funny because every now and then the left comes up with the idea of like, oh, the states, that’s where it’s at. We have to just concentrate on the states. And there’s a sense in which that’s true, which is that neglect of the state legislatures in some of these red and purple states has helped lead to this situation. Because most abortion law is created in the states. It’s not created at the federal level. So while for some reason the Democratic Party and parts of the left concentrated very hard on the Senate and Congress and of course the White House, very important, the state legislatures and the governorships were allowed to become evermore Republican. And that’s the situation that is leading to these state bans.
Marc Steiner: What you raised here I think is really important. Because when you look at what happened inside the Democratic Party, when you look at what happened in a number of advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood and others, that people did not seem to see the writing on the wall. Did not see that there had to be a fight to preserve the right of women to have an abortion. It’s just like you look at what happened to voting rights. Looking at this, looking at the gutting of the Clean Air Act. But focusing now on Roe, it’s almost as if people were asleep at the wheel, not seeing the danger ahead.
Katha Pollitt: Yes. I think that’s true. And also just to say something on the other side, however. Abortion is so much a part of the fabric of life in America with one in four women supposed to be having one during the course of her reproductive life. And so much of being able to have a reasonable middle-class existence where you get to have a job, where you get to finish college, et cetera, reproductive rights are foundational to that. To the way we live. So anyway, I don’t think it was weird to think, oh, this will never change, but it would’ve been better if more people had been more alert. And I would like to say that among the people who poo pooed Roe ever being overturned were our nation’s pundits. I mean, it’s incredible if you go back and you read…
I remember a column by… I believe it was Dana Millbank, a number of years ago where he says, oh, Planned Parenthood just uses the threat to Roe to raise money. And that’s not the problem. There are no problems. They should be spending more time on birth control. I’m thinking, who do you think spends time on birth control if not Planned Parenthood? I mean, for God’s sake. But this idea that the abortion rights movement and abortion rights institutions were just Chicken Little’s saying the sky is falling. This was a very, very common way. Because if you look at punditry, it’s so often people pretending to know something they can’t possibly know: The future. And then just putting their biases out there. Just, well, I think it’s safe. Okay. So I think we were ill served, very ill served by the opinion-making class.
Marc Steiner: I think we were too. And I think also many Democrats and many people on the left, many people in the progressive and liberal world, even the moderate world, were asleep about this. To me, as I was watching this, it was like a slow creep over 50 years of retaking power that they lost and attacking women. I mean, I think that we should really be thinking about what that means in terms of how we move ahead at this point. I mean, your writing is great and you wrote, “In half the country, women are fetal vessels now. The capacity exists: to know your online searches, your travel plans, your proximity to a clinic. Does a fetal vessel have rights? I wouldn’t count on it.” When you think about what we’re facing at the moment on that level, that’s why you wrote and the whole idea of your piece was that what we’re facing is worse than you thought it could be.
Katha Pollitt: Well, it’s funny because people were saying, well, they can’t really prevent abortion because there are abortion pills now. And this is a great advance over the situation pre Roe where when people wanted to have a self-managed abortion it was often incredibly dangerous. I mean, it’s not good to stick a knitting needle in your uterus.
Marc Steiner: Not a good idea. No.
Katha Pollitt: Not a good idea. And a lot of women became very sick and some died. So abortion pills are safe and abortion pills are easy to find on the internet, at least so far. And if any of your listeners are interested in that, they should go to [plancpills.org].
Marc Steiner: What is that?
Katha Pollitt: That is a website that has lots of information about abortion pills. Where to find them, how to take them. There are websites where you can order the pills and they will help you. Doctors will be there and medical people will be there to help you as you go through the process. So anyway, people were saying, well, it’s not going to be all that bad. People will take these pills. But the problem with that is that what science gives with one hand, these pills, it takes away with the other, which is that the level of surveillance now is much higher than it’s ever been in world history. So you have to watch out. Can law enforcement or anti-abortion activists access your computer? Can they see your searches? Can they tell what you’re getting in the mail? Nobody knows the answers to these questions.
But anti-abortion people go to clinics and they write down the license numbers of the cars that are there for patients. And then sometimes they contact those people’s families. So our privacy is very much at risk and people need to be very careful. And I’m a total technophobe so I can’t tell anybody what that actually means. They can find out somewhere else.
Marc Steiner: But what’s clear is that, and was really shocking when I read it, was that Facebook and Instagram are taking down posts about pills. Leaving up posts about how you can buy guns or weed, but taking down posts about how women can access abortion pills. So the process has already begun.
Katha Pollitt: Yeah, that was really scary. Now, I put up on my Facebook page a link to a site that has information, and it was up for… I don’t know if it’s up now. I haven’t checked today. But it was up for a while. So maybe they backed off that when that got a lot of terrible publicity for Facebook and Instagram. But yeah. And sometimes I think, well, in some ways the old methods are good. Like make stickers with need abortion pills, contact [plancpills.org] with the information about how to get in touch with them and just put those stickers up everywhere. If you’re on campus, you can put them in the ladies room. But just don’t say I told you to do that because it’s probably not legal. But people do get the word out. Rock bands put up stickers all over neighborhoods about their concerts. And it should be possible to get this word out.
In Ireland when not only was abortion illegal, it was illegal to give information, and people put up stickers in phone booths saying who to call. So I think if people are energized, there are ways to get the word out. But the problem is that it’s such a big country and it has so many different kinds of people in it and so many people are really cut off from regular sources of information. And I saw that in 2020, only one in five women even knew abortion pills existed. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk a bit about what you think the work will be. I mean, when you look at the reality that this criminalization of abortion goes along with the greater ability to track what people read, what they write about, what they go after, what they purchase and how that’s going to be used in places like Texas, and in places where they’re legalizing the ability for people to track people down, to go at them for having an abortion or for getting pills and doing it across the state lines, taking it into Texas and other places, Missouri and other places. That this is a different war that’s about to happen. And I use that word “war” because it means that what we do can be surveilled in a much greater way by civilians, by people who are not police, as well as the police going after people for obtaining abortions.
Katha Pollitt: Well, the thing that I worry about is that a woman takes abortion pills and she bleeds or she has a lot of pain and she goes to the ER, which is a normal thing to do. And there, the medical personnel, whether it’s the doctor or the nurse or someone who changes the linens badgers her into saying that she’s taken pills. Now, an abortion pill simply causes a miscarriage. It’s just the same as a natural miscarriage. A doctor can’t tell what it is. But there have been cases where they’ve wormed out of people and bullied people into saying that, oh yes, I took those pills. And now that woman could be in a lot of trouble.
And I worry about that. There’s very heightened alertness that the anti-choice people now have to all these situations, and they’ll be looking. I mean, I know there are those who think, oh, once abortion is made illegal, everybody’s just going to leave well enough alone. Because when abortion was illegal before Roe, it happened all the time.
Marc Steiner: What happened all the time?
Katha Pollitt: It was very much a part of the fabric of life as it is now. And mostly women did not get arrested. Mostly, doctors did not get arrested. But I think now it’s going to be different because the stakes have been raised so much higher. The rhetoric around it’s murder, the fetus is a person from the moment of conception when it isn’t even a fetus, it’s just a fertilized egg. That has been ratcheted up so far. And there’s a very organized movement, which there didn’t used to be pre Roe. There were not hundreds of thousands of people marching in the street. And now there are two very organized Christian denominations, the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Fundamentalist churches, that this is one of their big causes in life.
Marc Steiner: I’m thinking about what we face, and I’m talking about what you wrote and the articles that you also cited in your article. And I was thinking back to the 1960s. And in the 1960s, it was still pretty horrendous. I mean, because it was illegal, there was a chance you could be arrested. You really had to meet a woman in a parking lot, put her in a car, blindfold her, make her lie down in the back seat, take her to a secret clinic, have the abortion, drive her back to be picked up in the same way so that nobody knew where you were going so that the doctors would not get arrested. And they were expensive. Some abortions, some of the people I worked with, charged $500 for an abortion in 1967, which was a huge amount of money.
And they would pay me $100 to bring them an abortion, and I would use that money to help the woman pay for her abortion because that’s the way it was. But now, as you and others have written about, the internet economy is really meticulous, I think was the word you used, in tracking of everything we do, that this changes the whole nature of what the battle may be in the future for women to get an abortion. And the risk could be, I think, as you’re alluding to, writing about in your article, will be greater than they were before Roe. Before the time then, when it was illegal across the country.
Katha Pollitt: It could be. I think a lot of that will be a political struggle that we can’t give up on the purple states.
Marc Steiner: No. Oh no.
Katha Pollitt: Where there are states where just a few more people in the state legislature like in Arizona and New Mexico… Not New Mexico. Arizona and Wisconsin. Will put it under Democratic control and then things will be better. So I think we can’t allow ourselves to be too demobilized and destabilized by these awful possibilities, because everything is still in play. One thing that your listeners might be interested in is I just was reading about new clinics starting. In New Mexico, several are starting up. There’s a new one starting in Maryland. And if you believe in the power of the market, you think, well, there’s a need, and who’s going to be there to fill it?
But you can’t be too happy about that either because this really is a form of medical care. What if they said, sure, you can have a heart operation. You just need to go to Maryland to get it. Well, you would want follow up care. You’d want to know what’s happening. It would be very expensive to get there, and you have to stay over, and all kinds of things. So it’s not a solution. But it shows that there’s a struggle going on. It’s not all one way with the anti-choice people winning. So I give you that little bit of hope.
Marc Steiner: No. Let’s talk about that for a moment because I think that’s really important. I mean, I think that you have these extreme cases like in Texas, where young people, children who have gotten pregnant because they’ve been raped or molested or whatever will not be allowed to have an abortion. Criminalizing all that activity. Deputizing people to go search for people who’ve actually had abortions. Things like that are occurring around the country. But I think the hope is, what you’re talking about, is that people organize in a way that creates a fight back.
Katha Pollitt: Yes. I think people need to… There are a lot of pro-choice people in this country. In fact, there are more pro-choice people. But I think some people have been lulled into complacency, especially if they live in safe states like New York and California where you are.
Marc Steiner: No, I’m in Maryland which is also a safe state.
Katha Pollitt: Oh, okay. You’re in Maryland. Okay. Well, thank God. There are more than three safe states. But I just want to say, in case I… I don’t want to forget to say that there are things people can do. And one of them is they can support with their dollars abortion funds. These are groups, many of which are all volunteer, which raise money to help poor women pay for their abortion care. This is very important. The need is just immense. And anything that people can donate, even if it’s just the cost of a latte or their lunch, will all help. Because it will be more expensive than ever now to help get people the care that they need. So that’s one thing people can do. Another thing people can do is become more politically active. If you are lucky enough to have a pro-choice politician as your representative at whatever level, you need to pressure these guys because not all of them are really into this.
Not all of them are paying attention. There are plenty who will say the right words, but what do they do? Not that much. And I think even going on a demonstration is a very good thing to do. I know we’re all a little tired of that. But in some countries in Latin America, for example, Chile and Argentina, women took to the streets and they stayed there for weeks. There were daily demonstrations. They really helped to bring about very real change. So I think we have to think about getting active in a much more intense way. And you should meet with like-minded people and figure out what you can do at your level, whatever that is.
Marc Steiner: And I’m curious how you think politically about what happens both inside and outside the Democratic Party to really push this. One thing that I have said to a couple of friends of mine in Congress is that why are you not pushing the Democratic Party to spend millions of dollars on massive media campaigns to fight back, A, and B, to actually hire organizers and communities to bring people together to fight?
Katha Pollitt: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: Right?
Katha Pollitt: That’s very important. And one thing that’s often said about the Democratic Party, which is unlike the Republican Party, is that they’ll parachute in before an election and they run around and try to get votes and all the rest of it, and then they leave. They don’t build any infrastructure in many of these states. There is no effective Democratic Party. And remember the fifty-state strategy of… Now I’m blanking out on his name. Who do I mean? Former governor of Vermont.
Marc Steiner: Of Vermont.
Katha Pollitt: Yeah. Tried to run for president.
Marc Steiner: We’re both blanking on this. I have no idea.
Katha Pollitt: Yeah. Well, I guess –
Marc Steiner: I can see his face and hear his voice.
Katha Pollitt: I guess that’s fame for you, isn’t it? Well, anyway, this noble person had this wonderful idea that the Democratic Party needs to put real money into infrastructure in every state. And that didn’t happen. But there are states where… For example, Stacy Abrams, she’s done wonders in Georgia, and she got us those two senators along with the resistance. So getting people mobilized in a long term way is really, really important. And whether or not the Democratic Party is into it, we have to do it.
Marc Steiner: So let me just conclude with… I mean, the heart of the piece you just wrote was talking about how much more dangerous it is at this moment. And I’d like to explore that for a bit, what that means and what form that might take. And also to talk a bit about the resistance to that. Because you’re saying now in many ways, that what we’re facing in the coming years is more dangerous than what we faced before 1973.
Katha Pollitt: Well, before 1973… Well, it’s interesting. In the last 20 years of abortion being illegal, abortion became more dangerous for various reasons. One of them having to do with the involvement of the mafia in abortion provision. But there was a long period of time where it was just one of those things that happened and people resorted to it and you just didn’t want to talk about it very much.
And in fact, Rickie Solinger wrote a wonder… Who is a historian. Wrote a wonderful book called The Abortionist, which was about a woman who practiced abortion in, I believe it was Portland, Oregon, for decades. And policemen would bring their wives and daughters to her. I mean, it was completely known what she was doing, although tacit, on the QT. And the enforcement of anti-abortion law was spotty and varied greatly geographically and over time. Now, I think we could return to that or not. It will really depend on how vigorous our resistance to their vigorous activities are. This is an amazing moment in history where I think ordinary people can play a big role.
Marc Steiner: That’s true. In terms of politically organizing it, but also the willingness to take part in, if you live in a state like Maryland, or a state like Connecticut, or New York, that you’re willing to drive into Pennsylvania, you’re willing to drive into Virginia, North Carolina, to bring women safely to a place where they can have an abortion and get them safely home. That’s going to be part of it too.
Katha Pollitt: Well, that might be part of it. I think that a lot of people will be doing a lot of different things. I just saw something about a woman who said, I’ll take patients into… In New Mexico, I think it was. I’ll take you into my home and I’ll put you up. And there’s an organization in New York, and I’m sure it’s not the only one, that does that. That helps travelers.
And there’s a wonderful organization I want everybody to know about called the Brigid Alliance, brigidalliance.org, which was founded just a few years ago. And its mission is it’s a travel service. So it will bring a patient to where they can have their abortion. And it provides everything: transportation, food, lodging, childcare. Because people don’t really understand. It’s not just you get on a plane, go to New York, have an abortion, and go home. The majority of women who have abortions, 60%, are mothers. People have jobs that don’t allow them time off. A lot of people are living very close to the edge where even food for a trip would be a problem for them. So Brigid steps in, and it helps with all of that. So if people can find that online, brigidalliance.org, and make a donation, that would be great.
Marc Steiner: We really have to step up the fight and the organizing to make this happen.
Katha Pollitt: Step up the fight. That’s the moral.
Marc Steiner: We have to do it.
Katha Pollitt: That’s the message.
Marc Steiner: And I would encourage you all also to read Katha Pollitt’s work. It is wonderful to read and very punchy and very hard and satirical and to the point.
Katha Pollitt: Can we just mention… I’m sorry. I write for The Nation magazine.
Marc Steiner: Yes, I was about to do it, but you do it. Go ahead.
Katha Pollitt: I have a column there. And I have a book out called Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights that is available all over the internet. It’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and all those places.
Marc Steiner: So I have to read that myself so I can get you back on and just talk about the book. We have to do that. Katha Pollitt, thank you so much for joining us here on the Marc Steiner Show at The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to see you and talk to you once again.
Katha Pollitt: Thanks so much for having me, Marc. It’s always great to see you. Bye-bye.
Marc Steiner: Bye-bye. And the fight will continue.
Katha Pollitt: A luta continua.
Marc Steiner: Amen.
Thank you all for joining us today. You can find links to Katha Pollitt’s article and abortion rights action groups you can connect with on our site here at The Real News. Now please, let me know what you think about what you heard today. What you’d like us to cover. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. And I want to especially thank Stephen Frank for his editing genius and Dwayne Gladden our studio head for being here in the studio to make this all work. And to our hard working crew here at The Real News. Thank you once again for joining us. I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.