Since America’s beginning, the driving force of our history has been the heroic struggle of ordinary people demanding access to the freedoms enshrined in our founding documents—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

We are a country born out of unforgivable sins—the theft of Native land and African lives—genocide and slavery. Our status today as the world’s only superpower can be traced directly back to the wealth generated by these crimes against humanity. But through concerted resistance to exploitation and oppression—abolitionism, women’s suffrage, the labor, civil rights, indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ+, and disability rights movements, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, and so many other movements for justice, past and present—Americans have dragged their nation, slowly but surely, towards a more perfect Union. 

This is why it is so shocking for so many millions of Americans, myself included, to witness the unprecedented reversal of progress with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Overnight, the constitutional right to choose when or whether to be pregnant and have a child has been erased.

It becomes clearer by the day that our nation’s highest court is not so much an impartial judicial body as it is a partisan vehicle to enforce the far-right’s reactionary political project. Out of the nine justices, a majority were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote when first elected. A majority were confirmed by senators representing a minority of the population. The court does not reflect the values of the American people and, with this ruling, is now putting other basic rights in the crosshairs: the right to contraception (Griswald), same-sex intimacy (Lawrence), and marriage equality (Obergefell). Americans’ rights to privacy and bodily autonomy are under attack.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, paints a deeply troubling picture of how the Court considers what rights are guaranteed under the Constitution. The 213-page opinion boils down to this—the word “abortion” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution, therefore abortion is not a constitutional right. Only rights “deeply rooted in the country’s history and traditions,” as Alito puts it, are fundamental.

Our Constitution, of course, was not written with women, people of color, or other marginalized groups in mind. It was framed by a wealthy, slave-owning, white, male aristocracy who, while having some progressive views for their time, also had some very appalling ones. So if we take Alito’s originalist view of the Constitution, that what only matters is what the Framers themselves understood it to mean, all the progress of the past two centuries is lost.

We exist in a living, breathing, evolving world, and our constitution must be interpreted to reflect the values of modern society, not the values of a select few from a distant past. This is not an issue for legal scholars and politicians to simply argue over, but a demand that We the People must make, urgently and through mass, non-violent movement-building.

At 1199SEIU, the largest union of healthcare workers in the nation, we see abortion as a fundamental component of healthcare. It is a procedure that a quarter of all women have undergone before turning 45. Recent polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that three-quarters of Americans believe abortion should be a personal choice, not regulated by law. Majorities support abortion rights across party lines. Not surprisingly, the segment of the population with the highest support for abortion rights are those who are most directly impacted: women of childbearing age. Why is their voice not paramount?

I grew up thinking we would never see a Black president. I also believed that Roe v. Wade would always be with us. I was wrong on both counts. One signified the great progress we have made as a nation to advance equality; the other has shaken the foundations of that progress.

As America celebrates its 246th birthday this month, we must remember that positive change has always come from the bottom up, never gifted to us by those in power. All people, regardless of race, gender identity, the ability to bear children, or any other defining characteristic, must join together in the struggle to preserve the human rights of all. Only when we recognize that our freedom as individuals is bound up with the freedom of others, will we forge the unity needed to build our more perfect Union. 

Progress doesn’t come overnight, and it doesn’t come without struggle. Change also doesn’t always happen in the right direction. Yet as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let us keep this reminder of hope alive as we organize for justice and equality during these difficult times. I believe that we will overcome.

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union representing 450,000 members in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia.

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