Linking Voter Suppression and Abortion Restrictions: “If We Lose Voting Rights, We Lose Women’s Rights”

A combination of legal restrictions on voting and abortion, physical violence and intimidation tactics have emerged again during a time of renewed challenges to white male supremacy.

“If We Lose Voting Rights, We Lose Women’s Rights”: Linking Voter Suppression and Abortion Restrictions
A NYC voting rights march in December 2011. (Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

In the first four months of 2021, Republican lawmakers introduced over 360 bills to restrict voting rights and 536 bills to restrict abortion rights. The defeat of Donald Trump, and Biden’s attempts to dismantle Trump’s white supremacist agenda, have inspired a fevered campaign by state-level Republican lawmakers of voter suppression and abortion restrictions. While at first glance these efforts might appear to be unrelated, they are deeply connected, says Smith College professor Loretta Ross.

“The right-wing has an intersectional agenda. Their whole plan is to maintain a white majority by whatever means possible. So that requires them to try to socially engineer white women into having more babies and to restrict voting rights and immigrant rights,” Ross told Ms.

The long-standing connection between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement has been extensively documented by University of Kentucky professor Carol Mason, the author of Killing for Life about the anti-abortion movement. Mason was not surprised to learn that anti-abortion extremists showed up in force at the January 6 Capital insurrection, as documented by Abortion Access Front.

“The same violent brew of paramilitary warriors, white supremacists and Christian militants that we saw descending on the Capitol building merged to oppose abortion with lethal force decades ago,” said Mason.

Mainstream anti-abortion groups are also mobilizing in support of voting restrictions. The Susan B. Anthony List recently announced its intention to spend millions of dollars in a joint “election transparency initiative” with the American Principles Project (which also advocates for restricting trans people’s participation in sports). The Family Research Council has also spoken out in support of the new Georgia laws aimed at suppressing Black voter participation.

“If you’re convinced that Western civilization is under attack, and you’re convinced that part of that decline is babies getting killed, and you’re convinced that Democrats are the anti-child party—which is at the root of a lot of QAnon conspiracies—then it’s not a far stretch to say you don’t want people who would vote for Democrats to have their votes counted,” said Ross.

A Long History of Restricting Abortion and Voting to Maintain Political Power

“If We Lose Voting Rights, We Lose Women’s Rights”: Linking Voter Suppression and Abortion Restrictions
A NYC voting rights march in December 2011. (Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

The strategy of pursuing abortion restrictions alongside voter suppression to maintain political power is not new. In her book, When Abortion Was a Crime, University of Illinois professor Leslie Reagan argues that one of the reasons states made abortion illegal in this country in the late 19th century was to maintain white male supremacy.


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At the time, birth rates among white women were declining while immigrants poured into the country. White politicians feared that immigrant families, many of whom were Catholic, were larger and would soon out-populate native-born white families and threaten their political power. Hostility to immigrants, Catholics and people of color fueled the campaign to criminalize abortion, argues Reagan. Abortion restrictions were also a response to the women’s movement’s increasing demand for the vote and other rights.

“Physicians won passage of new criminal abortion laws because their campaign appealed to a set of fears of white, native born, male elites about losing political power to Catholic immigrants and to women,” wrote Reagan.

States banned not only abortion, but also contraception through federal and state laws. Congress passed the Comstock Laws in 1873, prohibiting the distribution of contraception and birth control information through the U.S. mails. States then passed laws restricting contraceptives.

In the late 19th century, states also imposed a wide range of voting rights restrictions, including poll taxes and literacy tests. Many Black Americans faced threats of violence, lynching and other tactics that kept them from exercising their right to vote.

This combination of legal restrictions on voting and abortion, physical violence and intimidation tactics have emerged again during a time of renewed challenges to white male supremacy.

Reviving the Dual Strategy of Voter Suppression and Reproductive Rights Restrictions

“If We Lose Voting Rights, We Lose Women’s Rights”: Linking Voter Suppression and Abortion Restrictions
(Hillel Steinberg / Flickr)

After the election of President Barack Obama, white supremacists again feared the loss of political power and mobilized a dual strategy to restrict voting rights and limit access to abortion and birth control. Mississippi is a case in point.

In 2011, two proposed constitutional measures were on the November ballot in Mississippi: Initiative 26 declaring a fertilized human egg a legal person, and Initiative 27 requiring people to submit government-issued photo identification in order to vote. Serving as the head of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective at the time, Loretta Ross argued the two measures were connected and urged mainstream reproductive rights organizations to mobilize against both measures. Some did, but others did not. The personhood initiative was defeated (55–45), but the voter ID law passed (62–38).

Shortly after the election in an article for Ms., Ross asked, “What if campaigners had listened to Mississippi activists, done polling, created commercials, distributed comparable campaign literature, and put an equal amount of lift under the 27 initiative as we did on 26? Could we have saved the right to vote in Mississippi at the same time we saved (at least temporarily) the right to obtain an abortion?” Ross asked. “We have to ask why opponents of the Personhood Initiative did not see the link between that and the Voter ID exclusion initiative that jeopardizes the prospects for women in Mississippi continuing to have access to abortions and contraceptives in the state.”

The right-wing strategy linking voting rights and abortion restrictions in Mississippi was a test run. Since 2011, Republicans have taken control of more state legislative chambers than Democrats across the country, and they are successfully using their legislative control to suppress the vote and pass abortion restrictions.

“That’s what happened in Mississippi,” said Ross. “They were able to pack the legislature with even more Republicans. Then instead of restricting abortion through a ballot initiative, they were able to do it legislatively. Voting rights and women’s rights go hand in hand. If we lose voting rights, we lose women’s rights.”

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.