Guest columnist Arlene Avakian: In search of the anger to act on abortion rights

  • Abortion-rights demonstrators hold up letters spelling out “My Choice,” Saturday, May 14, outside the Supreme Court in Washington. AP

Published: 6/20/2022 10:46:52 AM

Anger is an easy emotion for me. Anger saved my life. It helped create a boundary between my controlling mother and me. Being able to express my anger and sometimes rage released a sense of entitlement to my own space, to my own life.

Anger spurs me to action. And so, I have been puzzled that I have not been angry since the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s vicious but not unexpected decision outlawing abortion. I am stunned, but not surprised. I am speechless, though I have a lot of words. But where is my anger?

I have begun to understand that what is blocking my anger is the grief I feel for what we have lost and the terror of what we may still lose. I need to mourn and I would like to find a way to do that collectively.

I will get out in the streets, as will millions of women and some men, but will the organizing that got us the Roe decision in 1973 have an impact on the five Supreme Court justices who will most probably overturn it? Will it change the governors who want to prosecute women for murder for terminating a pregnancy? I am terrified that it won’t, and that many other regressive decisions will be made to take away rights we have enjoyed for decades or more. I don’t yet know what to do with the terror I feel. But if I can get my anger back, I might be able to figure that out.

Abortion is a very personal issue for me as I think it is for most women. I got pregnant when I was 21. I was devastated. I had just gotten married and was using birth control. I didn’t want a baby and was emotionally unprepared to be a mother. But it was 1961 and I had no idea how to get an illegal abortion. I wanted to fall down a flight of stairs, but didn’t want to hurt myself. I hoped that hot baths would magically cause an abortion. But the pregnancy proceeded and I gave birth. I was deprived of the experience of wanting my baby and my son Neal was deprived of being a wanted child born to a mother who was prepared to mother him. The Roe decision meant something very special to me as it did for millions of other women.

Now I want to mourn, to grieve for the loss of autonomy over our own bodies that this decision means. The leaked ruling argues that women now have access to birth control or the option to drop off their unwanted babies anonymously, so abortion is no longer necessary. The incredibly callous language that assumes dropping off a baby you have carried in your body for nine months is easy. I’ll drop off my infant and then maybe do a little shopping.

I need my anger back. Involvement in political action requires a sense of outrage and a modicum of optimism. But the emotion I feel the most strongly now is terror. Terror is as familiar to me as anger. Though not expressed, it was transmitted to me by my maternal family who were survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide. It is also fed by the violence of the white supremacist culture that we are all so deeply entrenched in, that is also not acknowledged and grows in its power with the silence that surrounds it.

The history of white supremacy in the U.S. shows us that anything can happen here and the worst did happen to Black people and other people of color. Steeped in slavery and genocide, the U.S. is a terrifying country. After the Civil War there was hope that the U.S. would actually become a democracy for most of its citizens when Congress approved the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. These amendments ended slavery, granted rights of citizens to the former enslaved and established due process, and granted the vote to Black men — women would have to wait another 50 years.

The promise of those amendments was dashed in less than a decade when states passed segregationist laws which the Supreme Court approved either unanimously or by wide margins.

People argue that rights are not taken away, but only those who know nothing of the post-reconstruction period can claim that. Many people who pontificate on this issue either don’t know this history or keep it compartmentalized — that was something that happened to Black and Indigenous people and it was a long time ago. These boundaries make us stupid about what can and can’t happen here in the U.S.

Now women’s rights and the rights of people of color are being taken away again with this pending abortion decision, voter suppression laws, and gerrymandering. We are in a new post-civil rights period. Just as it was in the period after the Civil War, the rights won by the movements of people of color and women have been under attack since they were won and now reproductive justice will most probably be lost. Further, more draconian measures will come now that the right is emboldened by this decision.

We all need to mourn, release our anger, and overcome our terror. We need to do whatever it takes to turn back this radically conservative tide that goes against what most people in this country want if we don’t want a version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to become a reality in these United States.

Samuel Alito referred to Matthew Hale, a 17th century misogynist jurist. His opinion was that marital rape could not exist since in agreeing to marry women gave consent which could not be retracted. The women’s movement organized to make rape within marriage illegal, which happened only in 1975. Will the idea that rape within marriage cannot be a crime be brought back because it is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition”? Will married women be forced to endure rape within marriage again? Can’t happen here? Think again.

In the mid-1970s Arlene Avakian was one of the founders of the Women’s Studies Program at UMass. Years later she was the chair of what became the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality. She is now happily retired and lives in Northampton.

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