On the meaning of “post-Roe”
“Can I give you a hug?” she says, propping herself on her elbows, wiping tears from her cheek with the back of her hand.
I lean down to her. I wrap my arms around her shoulders, my palms pressing into her back, feeling her trembling breaths.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
We both know that I am only a small part of what made this possible today. I don’t make the laws; I just follow them. My training comes from the many who preceded me, who fought a much harder fight than I’ve ever had to.
But in this moment I am the only other body with her in the room. I signify something to her, and she wants to hold me—or to be held.
And so I tell her, “You’re welcome.”
As a woman and a doctor in California, born in 1983, I came up in a time and a place of great privilege. Even with Roe protecting the right to abortion, my American privileges—my whiteness, an expensive education, health insurance—meant I was one of the lucky ones who could access and afford an abortion, should I ever need to.
Nevertheless, Roe was more than a symbol. Before this summer’s Dobbs decision, I used to hear and use the phrases “pre-Roe” and “post-Roe” to delineate between a dark, frightening past and the enlightened, modern present that was all I’d ever known. The Roe v Wade decision represented something like the invention of the light bulb or of penicillin—a turning point after which the world was permanently, irrevocably changed for the better. Not that all women’s problems were solved, but we had secured something fundamental to the free existence that I took for granted—like the sticky-pink amoxicillin solution that I give my youngest child for his ear infections, never once pausing to imagine as I hold the tiny cup to his lips, What if I didn’t have this? What then?
Now in a sudden, nightmarish twist, “post-Roe” has come to mean something entirely different: a new reality, in which those fundamental freedoms have been yanked away. The effect is jarring—like reaching for that familiar, pink, sticky bottle and finding it gone. The infection rages, unchecked. The lights flicker and go out. In the dark, the pleading wail of a child. What now?
And so we have the old “pre-Roe,” and the new “post-Roe.” What should we call the forty-nine years in between? They are no longer an “era,” but an interlude—the one in which I was born, raised, and trained as a physician. In legal jargon, we might talk about life “under” Roe, but I dislike this phrase because it evokes a reign or a regime, something imposed rather than what I felt it to be: a protective force, at once organic and codified. Something like prayer or poetry, the putting into words of a deeply felt truth, the validation and comfort and safety in that act.
But it was a truth felt in another sense as well: not only in words, but in bodies. For me, and I imagine for my patients, the right embodied in Roe was like a strong, sure embrace, one I wasn’t even aware of until it was taken away. Perhaps what I feel now is something like the experience of being orphaned: a child who barely registers the possibility of life without his mother’s arms—until suddenly, she is gone.
In California the rights of Roe are, for now, preserved. If, by an act of God or failed vasectomy, I should become pregnant next month, I could still get a legal abortion. More importantly, as a doctor, I can still go into work tomorrow and perform legal abortions for my patients. And I will.
But even here, something has shifted. In the clinic where I work, the change is palpable, unmistakable. When a patient asks to hug me after her procedure, I will still wrap my arms around her, letting her cry or laugh in sadness or relief. But I am—and I know this—a diminished and inadequate proxy. I represent a privilege we share, not a right. We both know, if we didn’t before, what we had, and what we’ve lost. I feel the absence like an orphan might, like someone forsaken—which is exactly what we are.
For forty-nine years, we were held in the arms of Roe.