On April 7, 2023, Texas Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk ordered the Food and Drug Administration to invalidate its 23-year-old approval of mifepristone, one of the components of a medication abortion, a ruling that would effectively remove the drug from the market. Hours later, a Federal Judge in Washington state ordered the FDA to not make any changes to mifepristone’s current availability. Since then, a Federal Appeals Court has ruled that it can stay on the market, but imposed sharp restrictions for accessing it.
The legal wrangling over mifepristone has produced an outpouring of outrage among Democrats, as well as a sharply worded letter of rebuke from the pharmaceutical industry, which now bears the signatures of hundreds of executives. Meanwhile, Republicans have been uncharacteristically muted—Florida Gov. Ron de Santis tweeted about Good Friday in the hours after Kacsmaryk’s ruling—with the exception of Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican from Mississippi. Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision, she wrote on Twitter, was “a victory for pregnant mothers & their unborn children.”
Since the Supreme Court released its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health this past June, overturning Roe v. Wade, those of us who value reproductive rights have worried about people having to travel across state lines to access abortions they need or want; about the risks of self-managed abortions by those who can’t or would prefer not to travel; about doctors and patients facing criminal charges. We have spent less time worrying about the implications of limiting abortion access for people who were pregnant with (or already parenting) children they very much wanted. It’s obvious how restricting access to reproductive options affects people who don’t want to have a child, or who don’t want to be parents. It’s less obvious how it affects people who do, or who already are. But if we truly value mothers, children, and the work and responsibilities of parenting, that is exactly what we should be worried about.
In the wake of the Dobbs decision, a number of women I know who don’t want children, or don’t want them soon, expressed anger and fear about having lost the right to make decisions about their lives and their futures. But it wasn’t just people without kids who were angry. Friends who were pregnant or who already had children also told me they felt like something had been taken from them. One woman I know put it starkly: She realized that her ability to joyfully, fully consent to parenting had been contingent on her ability to also not consent. You can’t say yes if you don’t also have the option of saying no.
We normally talk about consent in the context of sex. Legally and morally, an unconscious person, or an extremely intoxicated person, cannot consent. On college campuses, trainings and workshops on sexual assault urge young people to get “enthusiastic, verbal consent” from their partner before engaging in sexual activity. Critics make this sound like a bummer, a buzzkill necessitated by people being too sensitive these days, overthinking everything and ruining all the fun. I’ve always thought they had it backwards. Shouldn’t it make sex more fun to know that your partner is really into it?
By the same token, the very term “pro-life” makes a claim that opponents of abortion are the ones concerned with babies and their futures. But isn’t it possible that the opposite is true: that we value children and the work of raising them more by ensuring that the people who take it on have enthusiastically said yes to everything it requires?
The fact that we don’t seem to care about parents consenting to parenthood is revealing. On Twitter in August 2022, the anti-abortion organization Students for Life put it starkly: “consent to sex is consent to pregnancy.” This is nonsensical: as writer Jessica Valenti put it, it’s like saying that by driving a car you consent to having an accident. It also represents a failure to grasp what pregnancy and parenting mean in the society we live in. The U.S. ranks behind most other developed nations in maternal mortality, and restrictions on abortions and clinics that perform them—which, especially in rural areas, are often the sole providers of prenatal care—has only made pregnancy and childbirth riskier.
And, once the child is born, American society has long expected parents—mothers, more specifically—to take on the full responsibility for raising their children, meeting their material and emotional needs with little outside support. Needing support like financial assistance, reduced cost lunch, or subsidized health care is often construed a failure on the part of the parents. Earlier this month in North Dakota, the state legislature rejected a bill to expand free lunch to low-income school children. “It’s really the problem of parents being negligent with their kids,” Republican State Sen. Mike Wobbema argued. “I don’t believe that it is our responsibility.” In February 2023, Christianity Today reported that evangelicals in Mississippi are preparing to welcome an estimated 5,000 “Dobbs babies” in their state this year, babies who would not have been born had Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land. “We can help women keep their babies,” a pregnancy resource center worker in the article says, but no one says how they will help women with their babies—children with serious health complications, maybe, or whose parents were unprepared for them, or who never intended to have children—beyond simply celebrating their existence.
Hyde-Smith’s claim that the Texas ruling is a “victory for pregnant mothers” sits uncomfortably alongside a belief that has animated the anti-abortion movement for well over a century: That pregnancy is punishment for women’s sexual bad behavior. Anthony Comstock, one of the foremost crusaders against contraception and abortion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the U.S., believed that “God has set certain barriers” to sex, like the threat of pregnancy. If people lack the self-control to avoid sex (or, as he put it, if they “sink to the level of beasts”), he said, a “punishment falls upon the parents”: a child that they must raise and care for.
As we careen toward an America where it is harder—impossible in some cases—to opt out of parenting, we should carefully consider the implications of weakening the ability of people to consent to it. Is it really a “victory for pregnant mothers & their unborn children” to see babies as consequences of bad decisions, motherhood as punishment for sexual indiscretion? If we really thought parenting was that important, wouldn’t we want people to joyfully take on that responsibility—even and especially because they have the option not to?
It’s worth considering that people who choose not to parent—not to parent at all, or who decide they cannot parent a particular child at a particular moment—are actually reaffirming the value of children and the sacred responsibility that comes with raising them. In our rush as a society to dismantle reproductive rights, a side effect may be that we undermine that value, by making it impossible to enthusiastically, joyfully consent to parenthood—impossible to say yes, because we can no longer say no.
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