Mary Ziegler is the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at UC Davis and one of the leading historians of the US abortion debate. She has written many books on social movement struggles around reproduction, autonomy, and the law. Her most recent book, Roe: The History of a National Obsession, outlines the history of and nuance in Americans’ relationship with Roe v. Wade.
Izzy Lazenby: Your book discusses the clash between life and liberty. You state that we’re moving toward a more robust debate and argue that the discussion has always been complex.
Mary Ziegler: I wanted to capture that complicated conversations about abortion have always happened in politics and law, but especially in the cases of individuals considering abortion, since they rarely see it as a zero-sum thing. They’re thinking about their real lives, which are complicated and nuanced. The hope is that we can have those conversations more out in the open. Losing Roe v. Wade was a tremendous blow. If the worst has already happened, there’s no downside to having a more complicated conversation or thinking in different terms because you’re no longer afraid that what you do might lead to the defeat of Roe.
IL: What prevents us from having these more complicated conversations?
MZ: On both sides, there is an almost constant emergency mentality surrounding abortion. For example, some anti-abortion activists say more needs to be done to help people who are struggling so they don’t feel the need to have abortions, while others believe the real emergency is just to stop abortions and punish the wrongdoers performing them. On the abortion rights side, people sympathize with calls for reproductive justice, but when the time comes to legislate, they focus on abortion because it is so under attack.
IL: What gets lost on all sides of the debate with the narrow focus on Roe?
MZ: Anti-abortion groups will say abortion is offered as a false alternative to other reforms that are needed to help the poor. Abortion rights supporters will say anti-abortion groups aren’t really supporting those other reforms, and people need access to abortion too. Reproductive justice activists will say that no one is doing enough to support people who want to have children. There’s truth to that. People often prioritize abortion in ways that don’t focus on people who want to afford children or make abortion decisions based on what they want rather than what they feel they must do because their situations are constrained.
If you look at how both abortion and pregnancy in the United States have worked, it’s hard for it to feel like an upbeat story. Even when Roe was on the books, it felt like the bare minimum for many people who were really suffering and for whom pregnancy was already a rough experience. Taking Roe away makes that even worse, but even if Roe were to return, it wouldn’t change the fact that it wasn’t enough.
IL: How can we make conversations surrounding abortion less “narrow and strategic”?
MZ: A starting point is talking about the issues adjacent to abortion. If everyone cares about people’s ability to have the children they want, which in theory, we’re supposed to agree on, then start with what it would take for that to happen. I think everyone also agrees we’re failing at that. Not avoiding abortion but talking about it after some of those other things have been established.
It obviously helps to listen for some point that makes sense to you and to not dispute someone’s premise right away. To someone opposed to abortion, don’t say a fetus is just tissue, even if you think that, because it’d be a complete nonstarter. Instead, when getting into the policy realm, ask questions like, “If we think fetal life does have value, why are we landing on these solutions? Are there solutions that would be better for pregnant people or less zero-sum?”
In other words, if someone has a deeply held belief, don’t call that belief BS. You don’t need to follow the person all the way down the road to the policy solution you find disturbing, and you don’t need to let go of your own deeply held belief either, but it helps if people feel that you’re treating them with respect, even if you’re disagreeing with them vehemently.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.