Fighting the Abortion Stigma With a Supreme Court Brief

Fighting the Abortion Stigma With a Supreme Court Brief
Francisco Montes

In a groundbreaking series of filings with the U.S. Supreme Court this week, more than 100 women in the legal field, politics, business, higher education and even one Episcopal priest publicly revealed their own personal stories of abortion.

In the filings, among 45 amicus briefs filed with the court ahead of oral arguments over an omnibus anti-abortion law Texas lawmakers passed in 2013, the women say they wouldn’t be where they are today—successful government lawyers, state legislators, law school professors and even two former judges—if they hadn't had access to safe and legal abortion.

“To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and, to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion,” says one appellate lawyer quoted in the brief.  

The women join a staggering number of medical associations, politicians, attorneys, religious leaders and even government agencies that filed briefs with the court this week arguing that the law is a dangerous, unconstitutional burden on a woman’s right to choose. The sheer volume of opposition to the law is in large part due to the stakes in this case being so high—it could redefine what restrictions states can legally place on abortion providers.

Much of what these groups argue isn’t new. While debating the bill, the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature heard from medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Family Physicians, which filed a brief with the court Monday, saying the law would endanger women. The legislature passed it anyway under the guise of women’s safety—and, surprise, there’s already evidence it is, in fact, endangering women. In 2014, a federal district court judge cited the “dearth of credible evidence” that the law would make women any safer when he blocked its strictest provisions from being implemented. Yet the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the most conservative federal appeals court in the country, let the law stand. The court concluded that the nearly 1 million Texas women who’d be hurt by the law, because they’d live so far from those clinics that do survive the law that obtaining an abortion would be arduous (if not impossible due to, say, socioeconomic status or the threat of domestic violence), were simply not a “large” enough “fraction” of women to rule the law unconstitutional.

While these arguments may not be new, what's unprecedented is more than 100 women in the upper echelons of legal, political, and academic life detailing their own experience terminating a pregnancy in an apparent effort to counter the stigma surrounding abortion, a stigma that persists despite the fact that one in three U.S. women will have the procedure at some point in her lifetime. The women did so without anonymity—one of the briefs by 113 attorneys “who have exercised their constitutional right to an abortion” contains an appendix listing them name after name.

To some of the women quoted in the filings, access to abortion allowed them to break a recurring family cycle of teen pregnancy—because of their abortions, they say, they were able to finish high school and go on to higher education and law school.

The brief includes this personal account from one public defender:

"I am the daughter of a teenage mother who is the daughter of a teenage mother. I had an abortion when I was 16 years old and living in rural Oregon. I believe that access to a safe, legal abortion broke the familial cycle of teenage parenthood and allowed me to not only escape a very unhealthy emotional[ly] abusive teenage relationship but to graduate from an elite college, work for one of the nation’s most storied civil rights organizations, and go on to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School . . . I often tell people—and I believe it to be true—that access to a safe, legal abortion saved my life. If I had not had an abortion, I would have never been able to graduate high school, go to college, [or] escape my high-poverty rural county in Oregon. I would never have been able to fully participate in the civil and social life of the country. I have seen the effects of teenage motherhood for women in my family, my friends, and loved ones. I have seen all the dreams deferred, the plans derailed, the poverty endured."

This week's filings also detail the personal story of former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who in 2013 famously launched a successful, 13-hour filibuster of the abortion law now before the court (while Davis succeeded in running out the clock, then Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to pass the bill). Davis ended a pregnancy after learning the fetus suffered from an extreme, rare brain abnormality; according her brief before the Supreme Court, she sought four different medical opinions, all of which concluded the fetus was unlikely to survive delivery, and if it did, it would probably be in a permanent vegetative state.

Also included in the briefs filed with the court is the story of Ohio state lawmaker Teresa Fedor, a U.S. Air Force veteran who says she became pregnant after being raped during her military service. Last year, as Ohio lawmakers debated a bill that could have banned abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, Fedor stood up to tell her colleagues why she terminated her pregnancy (up until that point, she says, she'd only told two close family members). As she said during her floor speech: 

"I heard all these stories that just fit your scenario, and I respect that. But you don’t respect my reason. My rape. My abortion. And I guarantee you there are other women who should stand up with me and be courageous enough to speak that voice. . . .

[W]hat you’re doing is so fundamentally inhuman, unconstitutional, and I’ve sat here too long. . . . I dare you to walk in my shoes. . . . This debate is political – purely political – and I understand your story, but you don’t understand mine. I’m grateful for the freedom [to choose]. It is a personal decision, and how dare government get into my business."


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