After Roe: Introduction

From the Series: After Roe

Bans Off Our Bodies NYC. May 14, 2022. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On June 24, 2022, the conservative majority of the United States Supreme Court released a stunning decision in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (WHO), overturning the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision of Roe v. Wade. For many in the United States and beyond, June 24 came as a shock, even with the premonitions of the leaked decision seven weeks prior. For others, it came as no surprise—among them, activists working against intensified efforts to restrict abortion access over the last decade in the United States and elsewhere around the globe; legal strategists focusing on judicial appointments to the Supreme Court; abortion caregivers and aid networks navigating TRAP laws; and anthropologists who recognize the centrality of abortion to human experience. As reproductive justice activists and scholars have long maintained, reproduction is always dynamic and always a powerful site for articulating social values and differently valued socialities (Ross and Solinger 2017; Zavella 2020). In the wake of Roe’s demise, this Hot Spots series responds to an urgent need for anthropological insights on the uneven social terrain of abortion rights and realities at this critical historical moment.

Despite being a culturally widespread and commonplace reproductive experience, abortion has been marginalized in anthropology as a topic of study. Even within the anthropology of reproduction, abortion occupies a less visible position than other “reproductive disruptions” such as infertility and assisted reproductive technologies. Whether or not this is an effect of social stigma that siloes abortion within reproductive health care and narrows funding and hiring opportunities for scholars of abortion, anthropologists have been largely complicit with the silence surrounding abortion. And yet, as decades of scholarship in the anthropology of reproduction make clear, reproductive politics are sites for cultural struggle. In recognizing reproduction to be elemental to social theory (Ginsburg and Rapp 1991), what do anthropological perspectives on abortion teach us about this global moment?

For one, they demonstrate that abortion politics are never solely about abortion, let alone “life” or “the child.” Across time and place, abortion has been a proxy for debates about changing gender roles amid political-economic transformations (Ginsburg 1989), measurements of global health (Suh 2021), relationships between state and church (Mishtal 2015), and the efficacy of political regimes (Kligman 1998), to name a few. Contributors to this Hot Spots series draw attention to how US law ties abortion to other “unenumerated” privacy rights (e.g., contraception, same-sex and interracial marriage, consensual sex among adults) and to assisted reproduction by tracing the ruling’s far-reaching implications for queer families (Mackenzie), prenatal genetic testing (Allyse, Michie, and Rapp), and disability justice (Bowen). They examine how the language of embryonic “life” asserted in Dobbs is prefigured in Christian theology and, since Roe, has been systematically normalized through selective appeals to technoscience (Helmreich; Yates-Doerr) in service of white Christian nationalist ambitions (Cromer). They consider how abortion’s historical role in the expansion of US empire in Puerto Rico (Sánchez-Rivera) reverberates in contemporary challenges to Native American sovereignty through adoption (Erola). And they highlight how the landscape of US abortion politics and care has always been global, as both people seeking care (Mishtal, Zanini, and Zordo) and activist strategies for expanding and retrenching abortion rights (Eades; O'Shaughnessy)—and even abortion clinics themselves (Ginsburg)—move across political borders (see also Mason 2019; Morgan 2022; Singer 2022). Social movements to liberalize abortion are thus sites for transforming democracy and forging transnational solidarities (Matteson). This Hot Spots series makes a case for more sustained anthropological attention on abortion as a necessary site for tracing contemporary power dynamics with broad-reaching global significance.

Popular protests of the Dobbs v. Jackson WHO decision have invoked the horrors of a pre-Roe past through imagery of wire coat hangers (employed to self-induce abortion with too-often lethal effects) and vocal assertions of “not going back.” Yet abortion in the post-Roe present is occurring in a very different cultural and political context. Over the past fifty years, many people in the United States have already been living in a world without Roe—among them, individuals with low-income covered by Medicaid and subject to the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on use of federal funds for abortion, and incarcerated people illegally denied access to abortion care and subject to further punishment through forced pregnancy. Meanwhile, abortion foes have succeeded in securing legal status for embryos and fetuses such that pregnant people may now experience severe forms of state surveillance, criminalization, and forced intervention in their pregnancies (Flavin 2009; Paltrow and Flavin 2013). Antiabortion successes have exacerbated what Shellee Colen (1986) famously named as stratified reproduction: processes through which some people’s procreative capacities are valued and promoted, while others’ are devalued and actively suppressed.

During the same period, evidence-based advances in abortion care using medications have allowed people to safely end pregnancies outside of clinical settings and have supported self-management in contexts where access to clinics is difficult, foreclosed, or undesired. Self-managed abortion (SMA) with misoprostol and, more recently, mifepristone, is not new but has attracted considerable recent attention—for example, in accounts of how underground networks in restrictive settings respond to the need for abortion by facilitating SMA (Marks), and in clinical trials of mifepristone as a weekly on-demand contraceptive for managing fertility (van de Wiel). Within these shifting clinical and legal terrains, scientific knowledge on abortion care is doubling as a site of contestation about what counts as evidence (Premkumar and Wendland). Protest chants about “not going back” to a time before Roe are on the mark, literally: There is no possibility of time-warping to a pre-Roe past (Newman).

Looking historically and cross-culturally to understand and respond to the present, global moment is a crucial task. Yet, what is unfolding ought not to be considered a chronicle already foretold. Futures are always implied in reproductive projects and imaginaries of who and what will exist beyond the present. Invocations of “post-Dobbs,” or even this Hot Spots’s title referencing a time “after” Roe, risk overemphasizing specific sites of rupture and change and may obscure slow transformations and ongoing entanglements across decades. For this reason, reproductive justice activists call for critical accountability to the present when engaging in necessary processes of imagining otherwise and dreaming bigger (Howes-Michel).

Together, these essays join ethnography and theory to explore the conditions of possibility that gave rise to this political moment and to the everyday realities that have been unfolding since the legal status of abortion was undermined in the United States—earlier, in practice, for some than for others. With the international spotlight presently on abortion, we seek to center abortion in anthropology, reminding our field of its centrality to critical studies of human experience.


Colen, Shellee. 1986. “‘With Respect and Feelings’: Voices of West Indian Child Care Workers in New York City.” In All American Women: Lines That Divide, Ties That Bind, edited by Johnetta Cole, 46–70. New York: Free Press.

Flavin, Jeanne. 2009. Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America. Alternative Criminology Series. New York: New York University Press.

Ginsburg, Faye D. 1989. Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ginsburg, Faye D., and Rayna Rapp. 1991. “The Politics of Reproduction.” Annual Review of Anthropology 20: 311–43.

Kligman, Gail. 1998. The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mason, Carol. 2019. “Opposing Abortion to Protect Women: Transnational Strategy since the 1990s.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 3: 665–92.

Mishtal, Joanna. 2015. The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Morgan, Lynn. 2022. “The Sovereignty Strategy: Anti-Abortion Politics in the Americas.” Political Research Associates, August 3, 2022.

Paltrow, Lynn M., and Jeanne Flavin. 2013. “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973–2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 38, no. 2: 299–343.

Ross, Loretta, and Rickie Solinger. 2017. Reproductive Justice: A New Vision for the 21st Century. Oakland: University of California Press.

Singer, Elyse Ona. 2022. Lawful Sins: Abortion Rights and Reproductive Governance in Mexico. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Suh, Siri. 2021. Dying to Count: Post-Abortion Care and Global Reproductive Health Politics in Senegal. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Zavella, Patricia. 2020. The Movement for Reproductive Justice: Empowering Women of Color through Social Activism. New York: New York University Press.