In seventh grade, a rumor flooded the halls that my geography teacher had an abortion. My friends at the time were horrified, flagging the underpaid, overexerted woman greeting us daily at the break of dawn as a murderer. My parents never discussed this issue with me and I had not given much thought to any of the arguments. I guessed my friends — most of whom came from Christian conservative families — must have been right in their disdain.
Flash forward over a decade later and my partner texts me that there is a draft to overturn Roe v. Wade. At 24 years old, I am used to everything that eighth grade government taught me getting catapulted out the window. But this news builds a fire inside of me that burns all night, leaving me tossing between the sheets only to find I’m sleeping in half-hour increments. I woke up to read highlights of the full draft by Justice Alito.
As a Black Jewish woman, I am livid.
Justice Alito claims the Constitution “makes no such reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” But if a nation declares no established religion, enshrining the free exercise of any religion, why would abortion not be federally protected?
Judaism prioritizes the lives of pregnant people, not declaring a fetus a person until it has fully exited the womb: “It is not a soul, and [so] it is possible to kill it and to save its mother. But when its head comes out, we cannot touch it to kill it, as it is like a born [baby]; and we do not push off one soul for the sake of another” (Rashi on Sanhedrin 72b:14:1). Actual life comes before potential life. Judaism does not believe life begins at conception.
The late Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Jewish authority, upheld this prioritization of the pregnant person, writing in his major work “She’elot U’Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer”: “If there is a danger to the mother from continuing the pregnancy, one should permit abortion without hesitation. Also, if her health is poor and to cure her or to relieve her from great pain it is necessary to abort the fetus, even if she is not in actual danger, there is room to permit it… Indeed, psychological suffering is in many ways much greater than the suffering of the flesh.”
As a Black woman, I’m well aware that Justice Alito’s assertion that “any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition’” is farcical at best. When the foundation of this country was built through legalized enslavement on stolen land maintained by war and genocide, stewarded by segregation, made to feel safe by internment camps of its own citizens, kept its women in line at the whims of witch trials, and turned away refugees at the mercy of the very pseudoscience and discrimination we bore here and shipped off to Nazi conferences, no moral ground exists in the history and tradition of the United States to establish contemporary definitions of freedom. If we referenced our nation’s history and tradition for precedent each time we legislated human rights, only property-owning white men over 21 would be at the voting booth.
I know this country was not set up for people who look, pray and identify like me. But those who wrote the constitution were not so arrogant to think they had a fully fleshed-out roadmap. Thomas Jefferson believed that the Constitution should be rewritten every 19 years to avoid “the dead ruling over the living,” reports political scientist Zachary Elkins. George Washington himself admitted: “I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors… I shall also carry with me the hope my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that… the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion.”
It is not the job of a Supreme Court Justice to hit Command F, search keyword “abortion” and say File Not Found. According to the Supreme Court website, “the Court is charged with ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution.” Interpretation demands innovation. It declares that as Washington and his colleagues predicted, the Constitution is incomplete. A document born out of revolution is not a time capsule. The Constitution is a living document with a system of amendments to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It lives to protect those it forgot to mention when it did not know better. It is a child in many ways — one who grows up to realize that perhaps the conversation around the lunch table is one of sheer ignorance.
While the abortion debate is certainly about bodily autonomy, what it really comes down to is who deserves freedom. Anyone knowledgeable about the history of abortions knows they will continue to happen, no matter their legal standing. The purpose of Roe v. Wade is to protect people from unsafe, often fatal abortions. The people I am most concerned about are those in low-income, under-funded communities in anti-choice states. Those without the resources to fly away to states and countries that protect abortion rights will be sent back to the shadows of dark alleys and closets with no medical personnel to assess the sterilization, application and efficacy of abortion practices.
It has been said by many of my favorite American philosophers that the “American Dream” is nonexistent or a nightmare. But I refuse pessimism. If there is anything I have learned since eighth grade government, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. Those of us with the chutzpah to stand up, even when they try to take it all away from us, are the true torchbearers of the project of this country. We cannot have it both ways. Either the Constitution was never meant to be touched or it was meant to meet the context of our times.
I implore you to keep fighting, to keep dreaming of a world where we overcome. As the late poet Mary Oliver once said, “Only if there are angels in your head will you ever possibly see one.”