Abortion Rights Denied

During the heyday of the social movements of the 1960s, Martin Luther King’s citation of the abolitionist Theodore Parker—“the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”—served as an inspirational and aspirational text. Even as events called into question that belief in the inevitability of progress, some things did seem to be permanent advancements. Among them were the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s and a number of Supreme Court rulings, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and including Roe v. Wade in 1973. Despite the backlash these measures provoked, we took them to be landmark achievements, measures of justice now firmly secured. Our belief in their durability was confirmed by opinion polls that showed vast numbers of Americans in support of integration and legal abortion, even as the movements to oppose them gained greater political traction. It was incredible that they could ever be overturned.

And now the incredible has become reality. The Supreme Court has already undermined legal protections that were in place to guarantee minority voting rights and now it has declared that there is no constitutional right to abortion, leaving it to the states to regulate it as they wish. The reasoning of the majority of the justices is based on theories of “originalism,” propounded by conservative jurists and legal scholars. According to this theory, if a right is not mentioned in the Constitution or its amendments, it does not exist. Roe was decided on the grounds of a right to privacy, but privacy is not an “original” right because the word does not appear in the founding document of our republic. Nor, according to Justice Alito’s opinion, is the right to abortion part of the “traditions and customs” of the American people, since there were laws against it in some states in the nineteenth century. Declaring the right to privacy a non-right calls into question other protections juridically based upon it, among them the right to contraception, to same-sex marriage, and even to inter-racial marriage. Things we have become accustomed to taking for granted are suddenly in doubt. Right-wing politicians are rushing to introduce laws that will ban all of these practices. These men and women, committed to “getting government out of our lives,” want to bring government regulation to the most intimate of our relationships.

States with Republican-led legislatures (almost half of all U.S. states) are preparing to pass (or have already enacted) laws that abolish abortion entirely, even in cases of rape or incest. In Texas, enforcement of the law is left to bounty-hunters—ordinary citizens who turn in suspected doctors and their patients are promised $10,000 per case. A Tennessee bill would allow rapists or their families to sue to prevent the rape victim from having an abortion. The cruelty expressed by politicians and pro-life advocates is breath-taking, rooted for some in a questionable theology.  Life begins at conception, they argue, and although rape and incest are terrible things, they are not as terrible as taking the life of a barely-developed fetus—now defined as an “unborn baby.” Denying them life is denying God’s will! These are the same legislators who refuse pre-natal care for impoverished pregnant women and health care to children of the poor, who would outlaw state mandated vaccinations, and who have cut funding for mental health services (of the kind that might well have prevented the recent mass shootings that have become part of ordinary life in America). With little concern for the well-being of those living, they define as murder anything that seems like abortion, including miscarriages or tubal pregnancies. The life of the mother and the health of her family are no longer primary considerations. There is a terrible strain of pure misogyny at work, even among some “pro-life” women activists; it is a misogyny that wants to enforce women’s primary role as agents of reproduction, claiming that function belongs to the state. And though it seems completely illogical, there is also a strain of white supremacy evident, as if outlawing abortion is somehow a way to avoid the process of “great replacement” of white majorities by people of color. (The lack of healthcare for the poor will, in this Malthusian logic, somehow select for the survival of better nurtured white babies.)

The loss of women’s right to abortion, to the control of their bodies for their own interests and that of their families, is one aspect—in this terrible reactionary moment—of the political triumph of the authoritarian right. A right characterized not only by cruelty, racism and sexism, but by malevolent insanity. Anger is everywhere and the unregulated gun market allows fury to turn into tragedy. The “pro-life” party is, in fact, the party of death. Groups that were once considered fringe, even crazy, have—since the presidency of Donald Trump—become mainstream. They have taken over the Republican Party, forcing out more reasonable, responsible types. One candidate for congress is running on a platform of “Jesus, Babies, Guns”; she screams to her followers that she will put “Democratic baby-killers” to death as soon as she is elected and her frenzied cries are greeted by rounds of applause. The increase in domestic terrorism grows daily: crazed right-wingers, nourished by Fox News commentators, shoot blacks in supermarkets, Jews in synagogues, little children in schools. The sexual preoccupations are startling: Democrats are pedophiles; gay teachers are “grooming” students for unspeakable sex; Q-Anon followers find perversity lurking everywhere—liberals are baby killers who drink infant blood to enhance their prowess—pornographies of the mind! All of this, perhaps, serves as a displacement of the sex scandals that have now been revealed as rampant in the Southern Baptist church—the place conservative, pro-life evangelicals call home.

These are minority voices still, but they have managed to get themselves elected by changing the boundaries of electoral districts (gerrymandering) to dilute the power of opposition votes; they are seeking to put officials in place who will alter voting totals to guarantee republican victories. (Donald Trump tried and failed to do this in a number of states so he could reverse his loss in 2020, but he has not given up and continues to campaign for those who promote “the big lie” that the election was stolen from him.) Their efforts will have the backing of a Supreme Court whose reputation is now tarnished by its avowedly political judgments; but whose members seem untouchable despite the revelations. The wife of Justice Clarence Thomas participated in the plans for the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol; Justice Amy Coney Barrett is a member of an activist conservative Christian society; the others in the majority are no less ideological, no less committed to ending legal protections against racial, ethnic, sexual, gender discrimination—protections many of us thought (hoped) would endure. If the Court has its way, we will soon be a nation ruled by a Christian minority, whose views are at odds with the majority of the population. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is no longer a work of dystopian fiction—it is about to become the reality in the land of the free, the supposed citadel of democracy!

Recently I was rereading some Frankfurt School texts from the 1930s, and I found myself empathizing/identifying with them in a new way. How could the possibilities for democracy have come to this, mused Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and their colleagues, as fascist waves swept over their land? As we ponder in astonishment the growing force of fascism in the US and look for ways to stop its ascent, my friends and I find ourselves asking the same questions: how has it come to this? and, what is to be done? 

A version of this essay was published in French by L'Obs on June 24, 2022.