Roe & Recovery
In 12-step recovery meetings, it’s not uncommon to hear people share that it’s difficult for them to pinpoint the moment they crossed an invisible line with their drinking. I, like them, struggle with hazy memories that belie a level of disconnect I’m not sure I’ll ever understand. What I know for sure is that my behavior oftentimes betrayed the resolve I had each and every night I promised myself I would not drink. In surviving hundreds of drinking sprees–especially those that started the moment I decided to ‘stop’–I’ve perfected the craft of cognitive dissonance.
I learned the term “believability gap” from my colleagues at Planned Parenthood. Our supporters called, texted, and emailed staff in a sustained panic for months, which then crescendoed as Justice Alito’s draft opinion leaked on Monday, May 2, at 9:20pm. People asked out loud what had silently clamored around in my mind for months: How did we get here? We’d been preparing supporters for months knowing the inevitability that Roe v. Wade was doomed, but people continued to believe in if despite us shouting when. While I stared at the news, surprised by my own shock, I immediately felt a familiar chill settle–one I encountered when it first became clear to me that I no longer had the power to refuse a drink. When you’re staring down the barrel of hopelessness, you know it.
I drank for 10 years fearing I was out of control. I’ve devoted a large part of my recovery to exhuming painful memories of drinking against my will. I never want to forget the obsession and compulsion that drove my behavior to override my better judgment. Daily work in recovery demands rigorous honesty and the admission that once I lost the power of choice, I unwittingly surrendered myself to a life of inebriation and enslavement to alcohol. I think I crossed my own invisible line the second I took my first sip of warm beer at 17 years old. Once alcohol hijacked the network of neurons in my brain, whatever line did exist evaporated quickly behind me.
Abortion & Addiction Stigma
One aspect of my work in the reproductive rights movement that compels me to work longer hours than I should is the dominance of stigma around abortion. Like the chill of recognition I felt when Roe fell, I shudder at the eerie similarities between stigmatization of addiction and abortion as health care. Recovery from alcoholism is an arduous yet meaningful path, littered by seering societal judgments about the alleged moral failings of people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Pregnant people with substance use issues in particular are currently criminalized in America: “In Wisconsin, state law already allows juvenile courts to take a fetus–meaning a pregnant woman–into custody for the fetus’s protection, resulting in the detention and forced treatment of more than four hundred pregnant women every year on the suspicion that they may be consuming controlled substances.” (Tolentino, 2022). Nothing about my work in destigmatizing abortion troubles me more than the cavalier attitude legislators hold against people who may or may not have crossed their own invisible lines–pregnant people more so than others, considering the state has a “compelling interest” in the welfare of a fetus. In American law, stigma is not a bug; it’s a feature.
Our Roots: Abortion, Temperance, & Women’s Suffrage
At the turn of the century, women were at the helm of the movement to criminalize alcohol consumption and hedonism in general. Burgeoning ‘feminists’ of the Temperance Movement bemoaned the depravity of Americans: “By 1830, the average American over 15 years old consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol a year – three times as much as we drink today. Among urban factory workers, this level of intoxication created unreliability in the labor force, dismaying employers. At home, women and children often suffered, for they had few legal rights and were utterly dependent on husbands and fathers for support.” (Campbell; Burns & Novick, 2011). It is no wonder that the increase in prurient and punitive attention toward rule-breakers bled into other lesser known ‘vices’ like abortion. “As more and more irregulars [non-physicians] began to advertise abortion services openly, especially after 1840, regular physicians grew more and more nervous about losing their practices to healers who would provide a service that more and more American women after 1840 began to want. Yet, if a regular gave in to the temptation to perform an occasional discreet abortion, and physicians testified repeatedly that this frequently happened among the regulars, he would be compromising his own commitment to an American medical practice that would conform to Hippocratic standards of behavior. The best way out of these dilemmas was to persuade state legislators to make abortion a criminal offense.” (Mohr, 37) In short, persons seeking abortion care–or numbing out with alcohol–fell squarely into the same camp.
The irony of women who were oppressed exacting political and legislative revenge on those they viewed as lesser-than is not lost here. Those white women decrying public drunkenness were the same people who didn’t have the right to vote and would soon lose their right to abortion. Lest we forget that Black and Indigenous women were still considered the lowest common denominator politically and socio-economically, along with immigrants. America’s preoccupation with legislating morality seeped into various aspects of daily life, increasing in intensity toward the 1900s. A greater irony, still, is that the first official laws around abortion were packaged as a way to target quack doctors by nailing them on attempted murder charges; abortion laws were framed as a means of poison-control for abortion practitioners who dolled out abortifacients (Mohr, 21). One argument against immorality, it seems, boiled down to which was the greater poison: alcohol or abortifacients?
I am not an historian, but I smell bullshit when I step in it.
The Here & Now
Many of us saw the SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization coming long before it did. There were signs. The fact that SCOTUS moved to hear arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson in December 2021 forecasted the justices’s intentions to either dismantle or flatly overrule Roe. Social media exploded as Texas SB 8 went into effect on September 1, 2021, when SCOTUS refused to intervene and the law went into effect unhindered. I don’t think any of us felt prepared to discover that reproductive rights, already such a hotbed for oppression, began to end the day that Roe died.
Mohr, James C. “Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1978.
Campbell, Alice W. “The Temperance Movement.” 2018 <https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/religious/the-temperance-movement/>.
Tolentino, Jia. “The Talk of the Town, Comment: ‘The Post-Roe Era.’” The New Yorker. 2022.