The best-laid plans of mice and (wo)men
Navigating a post-Roe landscape
I was hoping to offer you some humorous post-wedding analysis this week (yes, that happened! Hence the radio silence this month). Instead, I join the chorus of writers and podcasters interrupting our planned programming to wrestle with last week’s Supreme Court decision on abortion.
I’m not a sociologist of law or reproductive rights. I cannot offer you trenchant insights on the majority’s abandonment of stare decisis, nor have I done fieldwork in the clinics and with the marginalized women, trans men, and nonbinary individuals who will be most directly impacted by this decision.1 But as this is nominally a newsletter about “gender, family, and parenting,” I’m compelled to weigh in on how this ruling impacts issues more squarely in my purview.
When the news broke, I was in Manhattan at my first in-person conference in years. Ironically enough, it was a gathering of scholars who study paid work, family life, and the relationship between them. “Work-Family Justice” (a potential successor to the much-vilified “work-family balance”) was our central theme.
None of the sessions I attended was about reproductive rights. Instead, we discussed inequality among parents and the rise of female-breadwinner households. We talked about power in relationships and the drivers of work-family conflict. We debated the merits of flexible work and how best to encourage fathers’ uptake of parental leave.
And yet each of these discussions was premised on the notion that women (and people of all genders who can gestate) have some level of bodily autonomy. In the absence of personal agency over such fundamental questions as whether and when to have children, it seems—and, likely, is—superfluous to get exercised over inequalities in the division of labor generated by said children.
Though I suspect I preach to the choir here, some points merit repetition: Bodily autonomy is foundational to any hope for women’s full and equal participation in society. The rights to abortion and to contraception have been core to the (incomplete, but notable) progress we’ve made toward gender equity over the last fifty-plus years.
Ample social scientific evidence (some of it cited in the dissent and in amicus briefs) demonstrates the breadth and depth of children’s impact on a mother/birthing parent’s life. (Yes, children impact fathers/non-birthing parents, too, but the impacts tend to be less extreme or direct.) There are the health risks of gestation and childbirth, which can impact individuals long past delivery (just ask my new-mom friend, who fractured her pelvis during delivery and was unable to sit, let alone work, for months). There are the literal costs of birthing, feeding, and clothing a child, which coincide with the post-partum career hit many women take. Children fundamentally reshape the way women use their time and, as my own research shows, their mental energy.
For privileged women like myself who have access to good healthcare, paid time off, and household income well above subsistence levels, these costs are scary enough that some scholars nevertheless describe motherhood as a “specter.” People with fewer resources face much steeper risks and costs.
To be sure, children have a lot to recommend them. As another new-mom friend explained recently, parenthood is simultaneously the best and the hardest thing she’s ever done. Many people with some (admittedly vague) awareness of the costs of parenthood nevertheless choose to proceed and are quite happy with that decision.
Of course, the operative word here is “choose:” given the breadth and depth of parenthood’s effects on women’s lives, it is unconscionable for the state to force those consequences on someone. Lack of access to a safe, legal abortion can easily derail one’s life plans.
But, somewhat less obviously, lack of abortion access can also change the plans one makes in the first place.
Whether or not you ever need an abortion, the knowledge that it is—well, was— your right is probably the implicit backdrop of many seemingly unrelated choices. The dissenting opinion, which is brilliant and gut-wrenching and worth reading in full, puts it this way:
People today rely on their ability to control and time pregnancies when making countless life decisions: where to live, whether and how to invest in education or careers, how to allocate financial resources, and how to approach intimate and family relationships. Women may count on abortion access for when contraception fails. They may count on abortion access for when contraception cannot be used...They may count on abortion for when something changes in the midst of a pregnancy...Taking away the right to abortion, as the majority does today, destroys all those individual plans and expectations.
While this rhetoric may sound hyperbolic, it is soundly rooted in both social science and common sense. Imagine I told you at age 18 that your (paid) working life would be full of unpredictable and often ill-timed interruptions. That there’s a solid chance you will be out of the labor force altogether or unable to take on demanding work responsibilities for years at a time.
Maybe you’d still land exactly where you are today: same career, same partner, same family structure. But there’s a good chance you would have made different choices. Maybe you wouldn’t have bothered with grad school. Maybe you would’ve avoided the competitive fields (law, consulting, academia, etc.) with “up-or-out” moments that coincide with peak childbearing years. Maybe you would have put off marriage (and sex) until after you achieved certain career goals.
Claudia Goldin’s research offers fascinating data to undergird this thought experiment. In her recent book Career and Family,2 Goldin documents massive changes in how college-graduate women have organized their lives over the past century. For the earliest cohort of women she studies—operating before the Pill, the IUD, and the legal abortion—marriage and its concomitant family responsibilities were incompatible with ambitious career goals. High-achieving women by and large didn’t marry or, if they did, they married later in life (and, not coincidentally, beyond their reproductive years).
Mid-century cohorts experimented with sequencing: they pursued a job before they started a family, or they married young, got their children out of the way, and then attempted a return to the workforce. Either way, they made relatively limited inroads in the most competitive and lucrative professional fields dominated by men.
A lot has changed in the ensuing decades. Reproductive rights are not a panacea for all that ails women. But they are a key prerequisite for the trends Goldin documents among the most recent cohorts of women with BAs. These women are increasingly finding ways to combine high-powered careers with marriage and motherhood, thanks (in part) to access to contraception and abortion in their younger years and fertility treatments in their later years.3
I bring up college women not because they are the ones who stand to lose the most from this ruling; far from it. Rather—and consistent with my understanding of readers’ demographics—I want to challenge a mistaken notion I once held that I would be fine regardless of the eventual outcome of abortion debates. In the narrowest sense, sure, probably: if I needed an abortion, I could probably find a way to get one safely. But as Rebecca Traister writes in the brilliantly titled piece, “The Limits of Privilege in a Post-Roe World”:
The message that privileged women will be just fine is inaccurate and...its repetition, while well-meaning, is counterproductive to the task of readying an unprepared public for massive and terrifying shifts....Because while circumstances will certainly be graver and more perilous for the already vulnerable, the reality is that everything is about to change, for everyone, in one way or another, and to muffle that alarm is an error, factually, practically, and politically.
The Dobbs decision is about all of us: the reproductive rights that underpinned many, many people’s life planning are gone or in jeopardy. Now is not the time for complacency.
Yes, the vast majority of people who can get pregnant are women, but this is not exclusively the case. I’ve chosen the perhaps awkward middle ground of sometimes referring simply to “women” and sometimes spelling out the wider range of people impacted. I found this piece helpful as a way to start thinking about some of the tradeoffs inherent in using (cis)gendered language.
Maddeningly, I took detailed notes on the book when I read it earlier this year but can’t seem to locate them; nor do I have access to my copy of the book right now. Sincere apologies if I am misremembering something!
Even if the mythical goal of seamlessly combining career and family remains out of reach for most, women have made some strides. Of course, LARCs, abortions, and assisted reproductive technologies (i.e., treatments for infertility) are often prohibitively expensive if not covered by health insurance. And because the quality of insurance plans is correlated with employment and socioeconomic status, among many other factors, these family planning tools are far from universally accessible.