My wife campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment as a teenager. We both marched for abortion rights. We’re looking at Rowe vs. Wade to be principled, but we also understood that he would be cancelled.
However, it is one thing to know that a disaster is coming, and quite another to be there when it comes. The two of us were visiting Washington on Friday, and when the decision was made in the case of Dobbs v. USA. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization collapsed and Rowe was overthrown, it was like physical abuse. We planned to go to Capitol Hill, but when we got there, the thing that struck me the most was how quiet, how “normal” everything was.
At the mall, tourists took pictures and bought ice cream. It was a sultry summer day. In one direction, the Washington Monument was visible, piercing the sky. In another, the Capitol dome. As if nothing untoward had happened. As if America remained untouched.
But America, as always, is a fantasy. At its best, it tends to be the expression of our “better angels.” That this is fraught is contradictory, it goes without saying. When the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted almost a quarter of a millennium ago, they were progressive documents. But what they promise, both practical and idealistic, has always been held back.
Our precious inalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—were first reserved for white male landowners. In the most direct sense, the history of the country has been the history of the struggle for the expansion of these rights. How do we keep a promise? So far the answer has included the Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, Women’s Suffrage, Marriage Equality, Brown v. Britain. Education Council, safe and legal abortion.
A more perfect union must be incomplete, an extension of freedom and democracy. This concept is now under attack.
Having visited the Capitol, I could not help but think of Jan. December 6, 2021 uprising, chaos in the crypt and rotunda as supporters of the former president smeared walls with feces and sought to cancel the 2020 elections. We’re only now learning how close they got.
On the Supreme Court, Dobbs’ decision, along with the judges’ determination to weaken Miranda’s rights and allow thoughtless open-carrying, shows the sad state of the moral justice arc in the United States.
My wife and I joined a scattered group of people moving east along Independence Avenue. We turned north on 1st Street, past the Library of Congress, toward the Supreme Court, where a tall black perimeter fence encircled the building, and officers in riot gear stood guard in front of the familiar west front with the motto “Equal Justice Under Law.”
A peaceful crowd of several hundred crowded around, singing and holding banners. By the time we arrived, many were defiant, although there were a handful of anti-abortion demonstrators, most of them – how could it be otherwise – men.
“Liberate abortion,” several signs read, and “We’re not going back.” What touched me most was a distraught-faced teenager who carried a cardboard poster scrawled in marker: “My grandmother already marched for this.”
And here it is, the essence of the matter, the stunned feeling that history is moving backwards. Standing there at that moment was not like an act of protest, but like an act of testimony: yes, the treachery of the court, but even more of its willingness to dishonor everyone who had ever marched and sued, fought and died to get the right to an abortion. .
We have never taken away the rights once granted in this country. Dobbs’ decision sets a disastrous precedent.
And yet, as Sherrilyn Ifill, former president and director-adviser of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tweeted Friday, we must “remember we never saw the America we fought for.” So no need to be nostalgic. Right on the other side of this unraveling is opportunity.”
Ifill is right, I hope. History is not fixed but fluid, which means that each moment offers its own set of crossroads, its own opportunities to do something wrong or right. We are again at that crossroads in this country, at the crossroads that crosses the barricaded steps of the Supreme Court.
While we were singing, my wife and I knew that the judges were not within earshot. They were safely removed from the scene. Yet it seemed necessary to me to be there—with the Capitol behind us and the white marble courthouse in front of us—dismal but in solidarity with the America we still hope to someday live in.
David L. Ulin is a contributor to Opinion magazine.