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Gloria Steinem on the consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: What should the next move be for abortion rights supporters in the wake of news this week that the Supreme Court may be poised to strike down Roe vs. Wade? When feminist icon Gloria Steinem came to the phone today, we asked her.

GLORIA STEINEM: Some of us might go and support our local Planned Parenthood clinic, or we can wear buttons. We can carry banners. We each probably have a very fervent way of doing it. And I think, you know, it's very important that we state our opinion.

KELLY: Gloria Steinem is in her late 80s now. She spent a lifetime fighting for women's rights, including the right to control their own reproductive choices. So I asked her reaction to this leaked draft suggesting that conservative justices may be aligning to overturn federal legal protection for abortion.

Gloria Steinem, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEINEM: Thank you. I've missed you.


KELLY: Let me begin with a very obvious, basic question. What's your reaction? What went through your mind when you heard the news this week of this leaked document, which suggests the Supreme Court may be about to overturn Roe versus Wade?

STEINEM: It felt both new and angering and ancient. You know, I think there have always been efforts to control women's birth giving since women have given birth for thousands of years. I mean, I remember sitting in the Kalahari Desert talking to women who were showing me the plants that they used for abortifacients and to increase fertility. I mean, you know, this is not a new issue. And the very definition of patriarchy is trying to control women and birth giving.

KELLY: So that's the ancient part and the new part, just that after - I know for you, wondering, worrying whether this was the direction things would go, here we are.

STEINEM: Well, I think it's important to connect the ancient to the new because otherwise we don't understand the strong threat of patriarchy and racism that has been with us and continues to be with us. It's completely wrong. As the great Florynce Kennedy used to say, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. But we have to contend with it, and we will.

KELLY: You've laid out some of the consequences, but I guess, big picture, you've argued for decades that access to reproductive freedom is key to equality. What do you see as the impact of potentially striking down Roe? - I mean, setting aside abortion and the right to an abortion or not, just for the right of women to be seen as, treated as equal citizens under the U.S. Constitution.

STEINEM: That's a huge impact potentially on women because we have to be able to make decisions about our own physical selves. It's a very differential impact on women, depending on what part of the country they're in, what their economic situation is, what their race is, ethnicity. It affects all women but not all women equally. But I do note in all the surveys that all women are devoted to making sure we maintain reproductive freedom.

KELLY: So the core of Justice Alito's argument - Justice Alito, who wrote this draft majority opinion - is that the Constitution makes no mention of abortion, that that ruling back in 1973 invented a right and that it is time to - and I'll quote his words - "return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives." I mean, in the United States, the states do decide all kinds of things. What is wrong with letting states decide this?

STEINEM: Well, his comment that this is not mentioned in the Constitution is ridiculous since women weren't mentioned in the Constitution. It's quite possible that reproductive freedom would have been up there with freedom of speech if everyone had had an equal say. But medical needs should not be distributed geographically. They're way too distributed by class and economics as it is because we don't have national health care as we should. And this makes it far worse for the female half of the population.

KELLY: Was there any part of Justice Alito's argument that resonated to you in any way?

STEINEM: No (laughter) I don't think so. I mean, I'll go back and look, but I couldn't find any. No.

KELLY: And I'm sure you read it closely. I guess I wonder for you, personally, this is a fight you have fought your whole career. You have had an abortion, which I mention because you've been very public about it. I've talked to you about it on air. Does it feel like you're watching your life's work be struck down?

STEINEM: No, I don't feel my work or the work of all the women and men who care about racial and sex equality has been struck down. It's just that it has a roadblock now, theoretically coming from the highest court in the land, but actually will impose hardships unequally but will not change the fact that we either have decision-making power over our own bodies, women and men, or there is no democracy.

KELLY: When I interviewed you last back in December, I asked whether you still thought you'd be fighting this fight in 2021, which it then was. Allow me to update the question. Did you think you'd still be fighting this fight in 2022?

STEINEM: (Laughter) Yes because, again, A, we still live in some degree of patriarchy and, B, women have the unique power of giving birth means that there are likely to be this and other waves of patriarchal efforts to control the bodies of women. It is much different from my earlier days, you know, when abortion was way more likely to be illegal and way more difficult to find. We have made a lot of progress, and we have made a lot of progress in contraception and the morning after pill and many ways of making sure that we don't need to have abortions. This is just not a pleasurable experience. Women don't get up in the morning and say it's a nice day. I think, you know - it's not an experience that any woman would choose unless she had to.

KELLY: It's very striking listening to you. You still sound as determined and as convinced that individuals can make a difference in turning the course of this country and its laws as you ever did.

STEINEM: Yes. Yes, of course. I mean, one thing I've learned over time, over and over again, that politics and deep change and, you know, everything we're trying to do is like a tree. And too often, we think the tree grows from the top, from Congress. Trees grow from the bottom. So what you and I do every day, what's possible in our community, we could thank the physicians who are supporting and providing reproductive freedom. We can give money to the elected figures who are supporting this vast majority view. And we can just, you know, refuse to be intimidated by the protestations of a losing minority.

KELLY: Journalist and activist Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem, thank you.

STEINEM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.