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Roe v. Wade and the Myth of Autonomy

By Skye Jalal

Staff Writer

Illustration by Saffron Forsberg, Editor-in-Chief

One Tuesday afternoon this summer, while getting off the train from work, I saw a group of women standing on the platform and I paused. It was the largest group of white people I had seen at the station since Coldplay performed downtown a couple weeks earlier, and it wasn’t until I saw the poster boards in their hands that I remembered what happened in the morning. Roe v. Wade had fallen.

That morning when I had woken up to the news, I put my phone down and left for work. Apathetic in a way I couldn’t quite name, instead of turning on NPR or calling a friend to mourn, I sat and rode westward on the train in silence- staring outward at black bodies around me, and down at the hands of my own.

Coming back home, three black babies were running up and down the aisle of the train car. The two older ones wore matching sets in blue and green and the smallest one trailed behind them, shirtless and tripping over his own feet trying to keep up. Together they counted the seats of the car: “1, 2, 4, 7, 9, 10”. I found a parent, as they climbed on top of the sleeping body of a younger man with a brown paper bag in his lap. At each stop the children would scream into his ears, “Daddy wake up!” asking if it was theirs. He would startle, look around, and then bark for them to settle.

The rest of the train car shared looks of concern as the three small bodies hopped over the playground obstacles of briefcases and luggage and take-out bags of styrofoam containers. There was a dissonance in the car between the joy emerging from the children, and the sense of danger we could all feel was eminent for them. I wanted to do something, but what was there to do? There is little more dangerous for a black child, than the hands of the government. I would not dare call the police or CPS. I looked around again and saw other people making the same calculation. Knowing there were no good options, when the train car pulled away, I let them leave.

Jia Tolentino spoke in conversation with Stephania Taladrid about how the fall of Roe has led her to a greater disillusionment with the Democratic Party, “When the decision came down and we saw what the Democratic Party leadership had to offer, that was a moment for me where I began to genuinely suspect for the first time in my life that, actually, the Democrats are not interested at all in protecting the right to abortion.” Tolentino has been a prominent writer in the past few months on the impact of abortion regulation in a Post-Roe America. She’s written extensively about the failures of American democracy and about how the abortion surveillance techniques we are all currently fearing have already been prototyped on black women in the South for years.

Considering this, I find it interesting how even she, like many, is still negotiating the reality of Roe with a certain faith in our political process. Her statement reflects not only an outrage with the Supreme Court’s decision, but a sense of disbelief in who should’ve been our “protectors. The issue of Roe is not simply that it fell, but how it’s fall contradicts certain beliefs about our country: that America is good and just, that our courts are meant to protect us, that the politicians we vote for do their best to serve us, and that our rights do and impenetrably exist. However, where is the evidence for this belief other than in our own collective imagination? How is the fall of Roe experienced differently by people who have lived lives of such violence from the state, to never expect their freedoms or rights to be protected?

TaNehisi Coates writes about an alternative perspective of American history informed by trauma, “But if your notion of American history is very different, if you believe […] as a lot of African Americans believe, that democracy has mostly been a goal in this country at various periods, attained at various brief periods of time, but generally that has been a struggle, the way you cover our country is just very, very different.” In the current abortion debate, there has been a gross underestimation of how bodily autonomy has also mostly been a goal in this country. When you percieve the abortion debate not as a binary of Roe versus not-Roe, but as a landmark in the long political history of a country that has built itself upon the regulation of personhood, the way you think about it changes. The fall of constitutional abortion rights is not the fall of bodily autonomy, because something cannot fall that for many never existed.

Tolentino’s recent disillusionment with the democratic party is something that I have never experienced. Every ballot my parents have ever cast for the Democratic party has been done with a sigh. The decision between Democrat and Republican has never been a choice between good and bad, but between bad and worse: the mouth of a shark or the mouth of a bear. Lyndon B. Johnson, who’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act helped reform the Democratic party as we know it today, refered to the same legislation as the “nigger bill”. Two years ago in 2020, we had to cast ballots for a presidential candidate who dedicated most of his political career to imprisoning our fathers and brothers. Staring at the babies on the train, I faced a similar conundrum as my parents have for decades at the ballot box, the shark or the bear. Which would be worse? The sleeping arms of their father, or the predatory arms of the state? There are no good options for us. There have never been.

That day, the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and even in Georgia of all places, I did not think much about it. Something in me knew that the freedom of my body had long been restricted. Baldwin said that “to be a negro in America is to be in a constant state of rage”, but on certain days, it is also to be in a constant state of numb. That morning, like many mornings, I woke up to ride a train that is never on time, connected to a transit system that only goes in four directions to prevent black bodies from infiltrating white neighborhoods. I rode it so that I could avoid traffic created by an interstate system that slices up black neighborhoods for the exact same purpose. I went to my job on the Auburn Avenue that MLK was born on, and from the window watched police officers chase homeless people and the elderly out of the shade. We can’t fully mobilize to protect the children of our community, we can’t even freely move across our own city. How can a body be autonomous if it is not allowed to move?

Sometimes the weight of it all is just too much. Sometimes, it can be hard to feel one blow from the state, independently from the rest. As white women rode into the city to riot, the rest of us rode in silence to go home. The day Roe fell, I watched three black babies ride away in jeopardy, knowing there was nothing anyone could do, and I wondered who among us really had the right to choose the day before. How could we, when this train station was built decades ago, those babies were born years ago, and I’ve known not to trust the Supreme Court for as long as I’ve been alive? The perception of the Supreme Court decision as a completely unprecedented event, is blind to how such state violence forms black muscle memory.

Yes, the specific issue of abortion access is important and negatively impacts the most vulnerable among us most of all. However, what’s missing is an understanding of how abortion is only one example of how bodily autonomy is unilatierally denied in this country. White women will take to the streets when their own rights are violated, but where are the pussy hats and painted poster boards rioting for those babies? For their father? Why is the only anger when white women find themselves looking down the barrel?

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