Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion revoking Roe v. Wade rests, in part, on his selective reading of English common law and the opinions of Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English jurist. An extremist even by the barbaric standards of the time, Hale produced work that served as foundational texts for the colonial judges who presided over the roughly yearlong Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Some of the victims were homeless or poor women; others were well-to-do, at least one was an enslaved woman, a few were men.
In 2021, then, a Supreme Court justice has composed a draft opinion that rests, in part, on the contributions of a hanging judge whose victims were disproportionately female. Four of Alito’s fellow justices signed on to his handiwork. That Hale is one of Alito’s “eminent common-law authorities” shows American women, if they did not understand far-right conservativism already, how far the Court intends to go to limit women’s control over their own bodies.
Less well known than the Salem trials themselves is the probability that the witchcraft persecutions led to organized underground escape networks. According to a 2018 report by WBUR Boston, an NPR affiliate, local historians believe that people at risk for arrest escaped Northeastern Massachusetts through networks of “witches caves”—underground “safe houses,” if you will—that dotted woods around Framingham and Ashland west of Boston, where they would be beyond the reach of the Salem authorities.
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Today, the underground network appears poised to come back. It never entirely closed down. From 1969 until the Roe decision four years later, Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, also known as the Jane Collective or simply Jane, provided women with the money and transportation needed to obtain an abortion, if not always a safe one, in Chicago. Although some groups closed their doors after Roe, others continued to assist women who could not obtain abortions in their home states.
In 1992, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey signaled that states could impose restrictions that did not constitute an “undue burden” on women. Nearly a decade later, as Republican states continued to tighten abortion laws, volunteers led by 25-year-old “Catherine M” established the Haven Coalition in New York. The group continues to provide housing and counseling resources to women traveling to the city to terminate pregnancies.
The Atlantic’s Jessica Bruder recently investigated underground abortion networks “prepping” for the post-Roe world. In that world, women will still seek out providers and also learn how to fabricate easy-to-use do-it-yourself abortion devices. Bruder describes one of them as “a cross between an at-home beer brewing kit and a seventh-grade science experiment.”
For any woman queasy about a DIY abortion, reproductive rights organizations provide online seminars, and distribute information about medication abortions and how to obtain the pharmaceuticals. In April, Bruder told Terri Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, “There’s a network of people in general who refer to themselves as community providers. And the idea is a community provider could be anybody who’s willing to connect women with abortion pills who might not otherwise be able to get them, or in some cases, offer alternate options.”
Justice Alito has composed a draft opinion that rests, in part, on the contributions of a hanging judge whose victims were disproportionately female.
Other options are being created. One mobile abortion van operator has begun armoring their vehicles and plans to head to locales just outside certain red states.
Well-known providers like Planned Parenthood proclaim that “Abortion is still legal. It is still your right.” Women’s autonomy, however, is slipping away. When (not if) the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade, abortion will likely be illegal in more than half of the states by early summer. Blue states are quickly becoming abortion sanctuaries: New York is stepping up with a $35 million plan that would allocate $25 million to assist providers interested in expanding access and provide $10 million in “security grants” for patients. California aims to provide funding for procedures and to shield women from criminal or civil penalties if they travel to the state. On the international front, both Canada and Mexico have announced that they will assist women.
Driving abortion into the shadows, then, will not halt abortions. Neither will classifying abortion as homicide, as Mississippi and Louisiana lawmakers (and likely others) aim to do.
Unleashing a cascade of harsh measures that would do Hale proud will stop hardly anyone from seeking and obtaining an abortion. Women have sought and procured abortions for centuries—and will do whatever it takes to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Underground networks will take the risks and will proliferate. There is nothing the Republican Party can do that will change that fact. If anything, what the GOP has done through its judicial arm, the Supreme Court of the United States, is wake up the women who thought Roe was settled and had tucked their “Keep Abortion Legal” signs away in their attics and closets as mementos of a barbaric time.
That time is back.