A few months before COVID shut the world down in 2020, I published a book called The Future of Another Timeline. Set in 2022, it’s about a group of time travelers who live in an alternate United States where abortion was never legalized. Working in secret, they travel 130 years back to the 19th century to foment protests against the anti-abortion crusader Anthony Comstock. Their goal is to change the course of history. Spoilers: They succeed—sort of. When they return to 2022, abortion is legal in a few states, though it remains illegal in the majority of them.
It is not a good feeling to live through a version of the dark timeline I imagined in my fiction. As I wrote my novel, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were spawning new memes about the joy of beer and the worthlessness of women’s bodily autonomy. And as I write this, the new conservative-majority Supreme Court has turned 2022 into the year when the universal right to an abortion in the United States became a dream as impossible as time travel.
But I am not here to say “I told you so.” I did not magically predict this turn of events, nor did I write my novel as a “warning” about what might happen. That’s because I was writing about the present as I observed it, where many states, like Ohio, Kentucky, and Louisiana, have only one abortion clinic. In recent years, states like Texas have made it so difficult for people to get abortions that the procedure is effectively out of reach.
This isn’t a new situation, either. In the 1980s, the Hyde Amendment made it unlawful to use federal funds for abortions. That means Indigenous people living on reservations, where clinics are federally funded, have not been able to terminate pregnancies lawfully for decades—unless they drive to the nearest hospital offering abortions, which might be hundreds of miles away from home.
The alternate timeline I imagined in my novel was already unfolding within America’s official story of abortion access for everyone. Many people did not have access. Clinic workers were murdered for providing abortions, and many others were systematically harassed. All I had to do was describe what was actually happening around me. In some ways, the only difference between my novel and many Americans’ reality is that my activists have access to some really cool time machines.
For me, the interesting question to ask about science fiction that appears to predict the future is not “how did you ever see that coming?” but instead, “why did you decide to describe reality using an unrealistic science fiction trope?” The answer is that sometimes metaphors can help us see the truth more clearly than an investigative report. And the beauty of time machines is that they are the perfect vehicles for telling stories about how precarious and contingent our rights are. In Ray Bradbury’s classic story “A Sound of Thunder,” for example, a time traveler steps on a butterfly 65 million years ago, and returns to the present to discover a fascist has taken over the United States.
Put in real-life terms: One slight shift in our historical circumstances, and we wake up in a new nation where access to abortion has been lost with a court decision signed by just six people. In a similarly abrupt way, our leaders empowered border patrols to imprison refugees. Our membership in the Paris Climate Agreement evaporated overnight., It’s all so surreal it seems like we’re in an alternate timeline, but maybe that’s simply the way bog-standard historical change always feels.
One of the questions that plagues my time travelers in The Future of Another Timeline is whether history is driven by a few powerful individuals (so-called Great Men), or by collective social action. Believing fiercely in the latter, they team up with 19th-century activists who are challenging the nascent Comstock laws with creative protests, pamphlets about how to terminate a pregnancy, and public lectures about anarchy.
This, too, was my effort to describe our lives in the present. Though today’s Supreme Court decision is new, the movement for reproductive freedom is not. Feminists like Ida Craddock and Emma Goldman fought hard to change our free speech laws so that it would be legal for people to publish information about birth control. (Yes, publications about birth control and abortion were once categorized as obscene and therefore except from First Amendment protections.) We may not be able to travel back in time to hear the words of 19th-century activists like Lucy Parsons and Harriet Tubman, but we live in the timeline they built for us. Their hard-won victories eventually gave us the vote, and with it more control over our bodies, our futures, and our nation. We live in the world they made possible.
Every struggle for freedom is a generational struggle, where millions of people contribute. It’s true that sometimes a few powerful people like the Supreme Court justices can change our destinies. And once in a while, a political operator like Anthony Comstock can ignite a moral panic that burns for decades. But the real power comes from collective action, the words and deeds of everyone who struggles for justice, over hundreds of years. We are ultimately the ones who give those Great Men their power, and we can take it away.
But we cannot accomplish anything without recognizing our current timeline for what it is. The Roe v. Wade decision made abortion technically legal in 1973, but millions of people have been denied abortions since that time. In the Turnaway Study, a group of researchers chronicled the lives of 1,000 women “turned away” from terminating their pregnancies in states with restrictive laws during 2008 and 2010. Forced to remain pregnant against their will, these women reported dramatic changes in their life courses. Compared with women who received abortions, these turnaways dropped out of school more often, made less money, stayed in abusive relationships for longer, and experienced more depressive episodes.
This would all be so much easier to explain if we could hop between timelines. Then I could take your hand and show you how the same person might lead very different lives with and without access to abortion. There’s a reason why the multiverse movie Everything Everywhere All at Once has become an unexpected hit in 2022. It helps us to understand that the present is a complicated place, with many conflicting narratives that constantly crash into one another.
The alternate timeline metaphor also gives us a way to maintain hope in the face of disaster. It reminds us that we have allies we may never meet, who are so far removed from us that they might as well live in another dimension. These allies are our elders, the activists who fought for our reproductive rights and bodily autonomy for the past 200 years. They are also the distant strangers who are struggling with us toward a common goal, all across the country, in clinics and classrooms, public parks and nightclubs, coffee shops and places of worship.
When we resist, when we protest and push back, we can almost feel them through the veils of time and space.
This Supreme Court decision is not a final defeat, nor is it an end to our power. As a 19th-century feminist says to the time travelers in my novel: “We have always been on this path together.” We can change the future. But first, we must recognize what’s happening in the present, and figure out who is here struggling alongside us.