Note from Christine Zulkosky: “This piece was originally written in May 2020, while many of us in New York City were still confined to our apartments. It was finished before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the accompanying protests. With the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, abortion access is in jeopardy now more than ever. This series is a slice of life from this past year. I hope it clarifies some of what is at stake. This is part one of a three part series.”
Part 1: Abortion Ban Whiplash and Feeling Helpless
“Still haven’t gotten my period.” My best friend texted me Sunday evening. A week earlier, she told me it was missing but wasn’t sure how long it had been. “The days all just run together,” she explained. I know exactly what she means. It has been 73 days since I resolved to stay inside my Brooklyn apartment as much as possible, only leaving for groceries once a week. The days feel impressively long and remarkably short at the same time. After a thorough inspection of the calendar, we determined it was still too early to freak out. “Wait another week and see what happens,” I reassured her. That week came and went.
Somewhere in between her initial text and the “Still nothing” text that came a week later, my best friend asked if I had signed her up for NARAL Pro-Choice emails without telling her. She wasn’t mad, just confused. When the emails started showing up in her inbox unexplained, I was the first person she thought of—with good reason. The last thing I did before COVID-19 became a full-blown pandemic was attend a reproductive justice rally outside the Supreme Court on March 4th. The rally was held during the first hearing of the June Medical Services v. Russo case. Lawyers from the Center for Reproductive Rights are challenging an unconstitutional law that could force all but one abortion clinic in Louisiana to close. I hopped on a bus in Midtown Manhattan at 2 AM in order to make it to D.C. in time, so I guess it’s fair to say that I’m passionate about the issue. Though I didn’t sign her up for the emails (spamming my friend’s inbox seems like it would cross a line), we had a good laugh about it. We’re looking for any opportunity to laugh these days.
It seems impossible that I was standing in a crowd of thousands of people two months ago, fighting for a cause I care deeply about. What feels unbelievable now, a luxury reserved for anti-lockdown protestors and Americans living in the haphazardly reopened states, was once a reality for me too. I bumped into people, an unavoidable consequence of standing so close. We all shared the same air. I met a woman on the bus to the rally. We are both Geminis. We talked about her work as an escort outside an abortion clinic in Queens and the mundane details of our regular lives. We stood together outside the Supreme Court all morning and hugged when we parted ways. A hug! Perhaps the most unbelievable detail. Real physical contact with a stranger. I got on a bus back to New York City that same afternoon. A week later, many businesses and institutions were already closed. A few days after that, the city’s public school system shut down. I stocked up on groceries on Friday the 13th and I’ve barely left my apartment since.
While inside, like many others, I have been obsessively reading the news. In the moments when I’ve attempted to focus on other things—over an elaborately prepared dinner (food is one of my main joys these days), in the evening watching TV, or lying in bed desperately trying to unwind—I usually make the mistake of grabbing my phone. My fingers, as if possessed, frantically punch in my passcode and wander to the Instagram app before I realize what I’ve done. What used to be mindless, mostly harmless, scrolling through photos of friends’ vacations, artists’ doodles, and NYC restauranteur’s food pics, has been replaced with a painful reminder of the all-consuming pandemic. Friends repost the most recent news they’re outraged by, artists’ doodles are distinctly melancholy, and the restaurants are closed—colorful cocktails replaced with URLs to the GoFundMe pages created to support their now unemployed staffs.
The disturbing uncertainties of this new reality have a cumulative effect. Stress builds and sits in my body, in my neck or my clenched jaw, sometimes my chest. At times it feels like things can’t possibly get worse, and then they do. I also follow a handful of abortion advocacy groups on Instagram: the Center for Reproductive Rights, Shout Your Abortion, If/When/How Lawyers for Reproductive Justice, and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Just three weeks after I returned home from the rally in D.C., the first update about the emergency bans appeared in my feed. Since then, it has been nonstop.
There is a reproductive rights disaster happening in step with the pandemic, and updates are sprinkled in among everything else that makes my heart race on a daily basis. For weeks, below the rising death toll, the hospital tents in Central Park, and the stock market collapse—there was a new abortion ban update everyday too. On March 23rd, the Governor of Texas released an Executive Order in response to the virus that would abruptly halt “all surgeries and procedures that are not immediately medically necessary.” A procedure was deemed medically necessary if it would “correct a serious medical condition of, or preserve the life of, a patient who without immediate performance of the surgery or procedure would be at risk for serious adverse medical consequences or death, as determined by the patient’s physician.” The subtext of this order was a total ban on abortion.
Two days later, reproductive justice groups sued the state of Texas. They argued that an abortion ban is unconstitutional—which it is. The fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy was established during Roe v. Wade in 1973. On March 30th of this year, the federal district court ruled that abortion services could continue. There was barely time for a sigh of relief before the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling later that very same day. The ban went back into effect.
Reproductive justice lawyers went right back to court, and strategically, lowered their expectations. They asked for an exception to the ban for medical abortions (administered by taking pills) and for women who were running out of time to have the procedure done before they reached a stage in their pregnancy where abortion is no longer legally allowed. The district court approved their request. The Court of Appeals overturned it again the next day. Abortion was banned again.
At this point, reproductive justice lawyers petitioned to take this to the Supreme Court. Before the petition was approved, the Court of Appeals changed their minds. They decided to allow clinics to perform medication abortions only. So, for a brief time, those abortions were the only type of abortion allowed in Texas. Not for long. On April 20th, inexplicably, the court reversed their decision, and medical abortion was banned again. Once again, abortion was banned entirely—the first time this had ever happened since Roe v. Wade. This was the same day that my best friend noticed she hadn’t gotten her period. On April 22nd, the ban was lifted, after a strange and exhausting month of back and forth.
This is a mess. If it seems hard to follow, that’s because it is. Staring into my laptop at my kitchen table this past month, I have spent countless hours trying to figure out exactly what was going on. I have picked at my cuticles until they bleed. This is just a recap of the situation in Texas alone. Comparable legal battles are simultaneously being fought in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana, Iowa, Alabama, and Ohio.