A woman walked through the door of my job trembling. Short, thin, and 75 years old, she spent a few seconds taking some somnambulant detour before looking at anything else. I happened to be the closest, so I asked her how she was.
“Yeah, honestly,” I said.
It had been such an aggravating day. I was standing on a fault line of not knowing what to do. On one side were women. On the other, legal protections for ending a pregnancy. The Supreme Court had just ripped them apart. There was nothing in the abyss between.
“If I could get a gun I’d shoot him,” she explained. “I’d shoot that [Donald] Trump for what he’s done to this country.”
The three justices he’d appointed while president — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett — were on her mind too. They all voted to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).
“I can understand that.”
“No, you’re not a woman. You don’t understand.”
“It’s okay. I get it.”
“No, I’m sorry. Sorry. I dealt with him in a former life, when I was working. I’m retired now. I dealt with him. I had to get paid from a job. It was a contract and he took six months — six months! — to pay me and I swore never again. Never again was I gonna deal with that man. And here I am having to deal with this!”
She shifted to business, so we took a seat nearby. But there wasn’t much solace. Her eyes darted elsewhere and I stared at a crack in the floor. I imagined a chasm was forming below it and we were minutes away from falling straight through. The Supreme Court’s decision was boring the big hole.
In Dobbs v. Jackson (2022), the ruling that just ousted Planned Parenthood and Roe, the Court built a machine that could dash other rights too. According to the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, “No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.” But Justice Samuel Alito, in writing the majority opinion, declared,
The 14th Amendment does not protect any unwritten rights to liberty that were not understood to exist deep in the nation’s history.
Since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, the only liberties anyone is entitled to are those either enshrined in the Bill of Rights or already enumerated by 1868. So, in other words, Alito said the Constitution doesn’t allow for the country to evolve and recognize more rights. Any liberties we think we’ve gained since via the 14th Amendment are unconstitutional.
In fact, Justice Clarence Thomas made the claim outright. In his concurring opinion, he scribed: “[The 14th Amendment’s] Due Process Clause does not secure any substantive rights.” And his words revved the engine of the Court’s demolition machine. “For that reason,” he continued,
In future cases, we should consider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents….
Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous,’ we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.
And which ones did he mention the Court correct? Oh, yeah, he specified a few: Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the right to obtain contraceptives; Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the right to engage in private, consensual sex acts; and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the right to marry a person of the same sex.
But others derived from the Due Process Clause could be pulverized too, things like the right to marry a person of a different race (Loving v. Virginia, 1967), the right to marry while confined in prison (Turner v. Safley, 1987), and the right of parents to decide on public, private, or home schooling for their kids (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925).
The Supreme Court’s wrecking machine, it seems, could now be set on any of these. And with the conservative members outflanking liberals by a 6-3 margin on the bench, they’ll be little resistance if conservatives like Thomas and Alito want to stomp their feet on the gas.
She finally rejoined me, but didn’t answer what I asked. Instead, she had a question of her own.
“Do you dream?”
“Do you dream? Whadda you want to do with your life?”
After a co-worker passed out of earshot, I told her. But I was embarrassed not to be doing it at the moment. Consistency had never been an ally.
“That’s great. I like your honesty. You’re not out here just trying to sell me a bill of goods.”
“But that wouldn’t be right.”
“I know. That’s why I like you.”
She got up to leave. “But we’ve got to be honest.” She stopped and she grabbed at my elbow.
“Follow your dreams. There’s not much time left now. Not here, anyways. Not in this country. And it’s gonna get worse, believe me. Better follow your dreams.”
Before it’s too late?
When she finally let go, I thought that’s what she said. But just then, a pedicab with a boombox came streaking by my door.
Photos by Rick Stachura.
(1) “Abortion Facts.” 9th Avenue and West 47th Street, Hell’s Kitchen. May 18, 2022.
(2) “Choice: 1973-2022.” 12th Street and 30th Avenue, Astoria. July 2, 2022.