Liberty No More

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the very definition of what it means to be American will change for women and girls in the United States.

A woman bound by the stripes of the American flag
Oliver Munday / The Atlantic

Updated at 6:04 p.m. ET on May 9, 2022.

How strange it is, the condition of having a body, of being a body. Consider the sponge of the marrow that makes your blood, the skeleton frame that holds in your organs, the tendons that attach your muscles to bone, the heart that pumps blood through your veins, the electrical signals that travel along the optic nerve from your retinas, the neural networks that light up the galaxies of your brain like constellations.

A person’s interiority—your sense of youness—is typically understood to be situated in the mind, yet the mind and the body are inextricable. What, then, must it mean to be in possession of a body in America? This is, we are told, a land of tremendous abundance, of self-reliance, of liberty, and of invention. The promise America makes to its people, the covenant that we Americans can feel in our bones and in our blood and in our beating hearts, is the guarantee that we are free.

Liberty is given to us by God, by nature, by our own humanity—not by government. I am American and so I am free to speak, free to publish, free to worship, free to assemble, free to keep and bear arms. It is to me self-evident that I am free to pursue the life I choose, without interference from the state. Freedom of mind does not come without freedom of body.

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, as now appears likely, the very definition of what it means to be American will change for women and girls in the United States. If the state makes a claim to your body—a claim therefore to your self—you can no longer be American, not truly. To allow the state to control the body of a citizen is to deny her full personhood. To allow the state to control the body of a citizen is to undermine the very notion of what America is, the core promise it makes.

Abortion presents, as Justice Samuel Alito writes in his draft opinion in the Dobbs case, “a profound moral issue.” None of us can claim to understand with certainty the mysteries of human life. As medicine and science have advanced, the moral questions about abortion that we must contemplate have only grown more complicated. But none of that changes the fact that government control of women’s bodies—interference from the state that obliterates women’s freedom and in some cases ends their lives—represents a monumental blow to human rights.

American women are now attempting to process what this loss of freedom will mean for them, both in principle and in practice. I wanted to hear from people in positions of power—women who are vibrating with rage in this moment, women who remember well what living in a pre-Roe world was like, women who might do something about it. I asked Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, to try to recall the last time she was this angry. “I’m going back to my divorce,” she said with a laugh. Then, more serious: “How far will we go in letting an extremist majority [on the Supreme Court] determine the personhood of every other being in this nation? … There is a fringe group in this country that is trying to impose its own self-referential values on everyone else.”

She wasn’t the only U.S. senator to mention to me a comparison circulating among feminists: What if, instead of legislating abortion, the state decided that “all adolescent males should be given vasectomies, and then when they are older and they can establish that they are ready to be fathers … the vasectomies can be reversed,” she said. “If this makes you uncomfortable, then how do you think women feel about laws passed to say that their bodies are something just to be manipulated by men?” The example is useful in its improbability—such a law should never and would never be enacted. It is useful, too, in revealing the failure of imagination among those who see the state-led denial of women’s most basic freedoms as acceptable, or at least tolerable, precisely because only women are subject to it. This same mentality casts the demise of Roe as a “women’s issue” rather than an attack on human rights. Yet this is a human-rights emergency.

Warren was not alone in her anger about the “fundamental intrusiveness” of it all. “How dare they?” said Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota. “How dare these people think that they know better than us what is good for us? How dare they think that those are decisions that they get to make? It feels so deeply disrespectful—so deeply disrespectful to the capacity of women to make good decisions for themselves.”

When I called Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, she had just tweeted “Mood” atop a pie chart, a post that promptly went viral. The chart was labeled “Chances I won’t use the word fuck in a sentence today” with two sections: “None” shaded in pink, and “Also none, but in yellow,” shaded in yellow. Before a press conference on the issue, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had razzed her, she said: We have to wait for Mazie; she’s taking all the fucks out of her remarks.

Hirono, who was in college pre-Roe, first entered politics to fight for abortion rights. “This has been a fight for me for decades,” she said. “I knew then as I do now that women should be able to control our own bodies. What could be more fundamental than the government forcing us to have babies? … I said for so many years that women in this country are going to wake up one day and realize we no longer control our bodies. That day is here.”

“We can’t afford to let them get away with it,” Warren told me. “I am ready to have that fight on the floor of the Senate. I’m ready to have that fight out on the street corners. I am ready to have that fight.”

American women have had this fight already, of course. And it took long enough, didn’t it? American freedom was conditional from the start. Only men were created equal, and only some of them at that. Women were not free. Enslaved people certainly were not free. One of the central hypocrisies of this great nation was always the exclusion of whole classes of people, their humanity waved away so casually, so cruelly. Unalienable rights and liberty—no, no, wait, not for you. When Roe was decided in 1973, many women still couldn’t get their own credit cards without permission from a father or a husband.  Only if our country attempts to include all citizens in the expression of its values can the American idea even begin to be realized.

Alito, in his draft opinion, went looking for abortion in the Constitution, and used its absence as proof that abortion lacked constitutional protection. He went looking in a document from an era in which women could not hold public office, could not vote, and, as the writer Jill Lepore recently pointed out, legally “did not exist as persons.” The men who wrote the Constitution wholly and deliberately excluded women, and neglected to imagine them as part of their polity. No wonder Alito dismissed “attempts to justify abortion through appeals to a broader right to autonomy.” His refusal to consider autonomy as a constitutional principle spins us backwards in time, to an era in which the Constitution couldn’t perceive of women as equal citizens.

The thing is, the Constitution does not need to spell out that American virtue is derived from the ability to self-govern, that self-governance requires individual freedom, and that individual freedom requires bodily autonomy. We know that it is so. The moral questions posed by the reality of abortion are intricate, and the government already interferes with people’s bodies in many ways for many reasons—the state requires people to get life-saving vaccines; the state incarcerates people. But any conversation about abortion needs to begin with the recognition that bodily autonomy is a prerequisite for freedom. When the state is willing to seize the bodies of its citizens, it does so at an enormously steep price. For women, the price is freedom: the very essence of what it means to be American.

It has been fashionable to say that American history is an arc bending triumphantly upward, a trajectory of progress toward justice. But I prefer an image set forth by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once wrote about society as a wave—never advancing, only receding and gaining in equal measure, taking on the contours of barbarism, civilization, and science to match the times. “The wave moves onward,” he wrote, “but the water of which it is composed does not.” We need not consult the Founders to understand that if America denies freedom to some of its citizens, our great experiment is doomed. It is easily apparent that our collective freedom is premised absolutely on individual freedom. As Emerson pointed out, the individuals who make up the wave will change, but the wave carries on. The indignity of mortality will visit each of us. The body gives out. But while we are living, while we enjoy the wild fortune of being on this planet, the experience is made possible only through bodyhood. Encroachment by the state on a citizen’s body is an encroachment on her independence and the elemental rights required to secure it.

Alito’s draft opinion spends more time considering the complexities of legislative bodies than female ones. Yet it is only within the human body that these thorniest questions can be answered. Does the placenta belong to the woman or to the new body she is making out of her own tissue and bones? Does the ductus venosus, the embryological channel where the circulation of the mother’s blood transfers into the circulation of the fetus’s blood, belong to one of them, or to them both? If the fluidity of these physiological realities troubles Alito, if he believes that the Constitution guarantees any rights to women worthy of consideration before allowing the state to steal their bodily autonomy, he gives no sign.

But any mother can tell you this, for it is a truth that can be felt as deeply and as durably as her love for her child: You can no more disentangle the body from the mind, or the body of the developing fetus from the body of the mother, than you can separate bodily autonomy from what it means to be American. And in carrying out the values that make this country what it is, you cannot separate the individual from the populus. America ceases to be America when its people cease to be free.

This article previously mischaracterized the rules governing women opening bank accounts in 1973.