Published Mon, June 27, 2022 at 12:00 PM EDT
In 1973, this Court struck down an Act of the Texas Legislature that had been in effect since 1857, thereby rendering unconstitutional abortion statutes in dozens of States. As some of my colleagues on the Court, past and present, ably demonstrated, that decision was grievously wrong. Abortion is a unique act, in which a woman's exercise of control over her own body ends, depending on one's view, human life or potential human life. Nothing in our Federal Constitution deprives the people of this country of the right to determine whether the consequences of abortion to the fetus and to society outweigh the burden of an unwanted pregnancy on the mother. Although a State may permit abortion, nothing in the Constitution dictates that a State must do so."
- Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, (2000)
Back in 1992, Justice Clarence Thomas was the controversial, newly sworn-in Justice who'd founded to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. On Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 decision that reaffirmed the right to abortion, he'd been a dissenter. 1992 was an explosive year politically; there was the '92 Presidential election that conveniently positioned Democratic Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton as the fresh, youthful change agent against President George H.W. Bush's established old fogeyism and conservative platform. In late 1991, Justice Thomas himself had been at the center of the Anita Hill hearings, which put women's issues and sexual harassment under a national spotlight; and the Rodney King verdict had led to violent uprisings in major American cities that spring, most notably Los Angeles.
In early 1993, Digable Planets had suddenly become one of the year's breakout artists. "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" made the trio of Butterfly, Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug stars; and on their debut album, Reachin' (A New Refutation Of Time and Space), the jazz-rap critical darlings including a song that tackled an issue that most rap albums weren't addressing at all at the time. "La Femme Fétal" featured Butterfly (aka Ish) rhyming in an almost spoken word style; sharing an anecdote about a woman named Nikki, who found herself and her boyfriend in the uncomfortable position of having to consider aborting her pregnancy.
She sat me down, and dug my frown and began to run it down/ 'You remember my boyfriend Sid, that fly kid who I love/ Well our love was often a verb and spontaneity has brought a third/ But due to our youth an economic state, we wish to terminate/ About this we don't feel great, but baby, that's how it is..."
- "La Femme Fétal" by Digable Planets
Over a sample of "O.D." by Jimi Hendrix and Lightnin' Rod, Butterfly offers words of encouragement to his vexed friend; while also blasting those that would criticize and condemn her. Chastising "the fascists" as "some heavy dudes," he explains "they don't really give a damn about life. They just don't want a woman to control her body, or have the right to choose."
At a time when pundits and watchdogs were attacking gangsta rap for violent and misogynistic lyrics, here was a rap group offering an empathic and insightful take on women's rights and a difficult issue that so many communities of color, in particular, have often been faced with. I was a high school student who'd just bought Reachin'... when I first heard "La Femme Fétal"; I was becoming heavy into jazzy Hip-Hop like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets were a cool, cerebral act that seemed to echo that legendary group's vibe. "La Femme Fétal" was one of the first songs on the album that I learned all of the words to, and its message was profound to me.
The phrase "ahead of one's time" gets tossed around easily in Hip-Hop; it can often sound like a backhanded diss to the past, coming from people to young to know earlier eras so they assume dopeness was the exception, not the rule. But Digable Planets was truly ahead of the curve in 1993; they were artsy and Afrofuturistic before those things became all that trendy in mainstream urban music. In 1993, neo-soul hadn't become an obvious movement yet; and even Native Tongue acts like ATCQ were trading in the beads and dashikis of their early days for more hardcore aesthetics. Digable Planets was unapologetically weird for some people; and my friends were more into what was coming out of Death Row Records than Digable Planets.
What is really what if I can't even get comfortable because the Supreme Court is, like, all in my uterus?"
- Ladybug Mecca ("Examination Of What")
But I definitely dug where these celestial rappers were heading. Also on Reachin...,' there is the vibrant "Examination of What," where Ladybug Mecca famously disses the Supreme Court on the heels of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The presence of Mecca already made Digable Planets unique; it would be a year before anyone would hear of a New Jersey trio called Fugees, and the mixed-gender dynamic of Digable Planets was fresh and offered a perspective most rap groups didn't have. Hip-Hop need that then. Hip-Hop needs that now.
On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court officially reversed Roe v. Wade, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion, which had been upheld for almost 50 years, no longer exists. Justice Samuel Alito said that the 1973 Roe ruling and repeated subsequent high court decisions reaffirming Roe "must be overruled" because they were "egregiously wrong," the arguments "exceptionally weak" and so "damaging" that they amounted to "an abuse of judicial authority."
The decision means that abortion rights will be rolled back in nearly half of the states immediately, with more restrictions likely to follow. And it's almost guaranteed that the question of abortion will become a focal point in the upcoming fall elections.
In 1993, I was a teenager who just loved rap music. And Digable Planets addressing the issue of women's rights and abortion was one of the first times I can recall that I thought about the issue seriously. My boys may have believed that it was odd to know every word to a pro-choice anthem, but that song resonated with me and many others. On June 24, 2022, when the Supreme Courted voted to overturn the historical Roe v. Wade decision, fans of Digable Planets all thought about "La Femme Fétal." Memes and screenshots of the song's lyrics and Mecca's line from "...What" have been shared across Twitter and Instagram.