The Month of April Brings Highs and Lows in Authoritarianism—From Dueling Abortion Rulings, to State-Level Crackdowns

Protesters call for gun reform laws and show support for the three Democratic representatives facing expulsion, at the Tennessee State Capitol building on April 6, 2023, in Nashville. (Seth Herald / Getty Images)

We are only 10 days into April, and it’s already been a head-spinning month for U.S. authoritarianism (and we’re not even talking about the indictment of the former president and Republican presidential frontrunner!).

Late on Friday, ahead of a holiday weekend, two federal district court decisions were issued that could dramatically impact access to medication abortion nationwide—even in states where abortion is legal.

  • A federal judge in Texas issued his decision in the case brought by anti-abortion groups overruling the FDA’s two-decades-old approval of mifepristone, one of the two drugs used in over 50 percent of all abortions in the United States. He has given the federal government seven days to appeal the decision.
  • A short time later, a federal court in Washington State issued a contradictory ruling in a case brought by more than a dozen Democratic states’ attorneys general, prohibiting the FDA from taking mifepristone off the market.

Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, voters in the notoriously purple state of Wisconsin turned out in record-breaking numbers to elect progressive Judge Janet Protasiewicz to the state’s supreme court. Voters’ concerns over abortion played a decisive role in the election results. Now, for the first time in 15 years, progressives will have a majority on the court—which has huge implications for overturning he state’s recently implemented abortion ban and redrawing legislative maps in the country’s most gerrymandered state. Protasiewicz won by 11 points—a rare decisive majority for the often-contentious battleground state. 

Also last week, in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed three bills that repeal the state’s 92-year-old abortion ban, which was triggered by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision; the ban had prohibited abortions without exceptions for rape, incest or the woman’s health. The bills were passed after Democrats won a majority in the state’s legislature in the 2022 elections, propelled into office at the same time voters passed strong constitutional protections for abortion and reproductive health. Whitmer also signed laws that remove abortion-related felonies from the state’s criminal code, and prohibit spreading misinformation about contraception and abortions.

Meanwhile in Florida, on Monday, two women elected officials—Nikki Fried, the chair of the Florida Democratic party and Lauren Book, a Democratic state lawmaker—along with nine other demonstrators were charged with trespassing after refusing to leave a protest against a proposed bill to ban abortions after six weeks that is expected to become law. “We protest to honor the sacrifice of all the women who came before us, and all the women who are coming after us, Fried said on Twitter. “Women’s rights are human rights. And human rights must be inalienable.”

And on Wednesday, tens of thousands of students across the country walked out of their classrooms, to protest gun violence in the aftermath of yet another horrific mass shooting at a Nashville, Tenn., elementary school.

In the two weeks since the school shooting, large protests have been taking place at the Tennessee Capitol. On March 30, demonstrators were joined by three Democratic state lawmakers, who led chants on the floor of the legislature. Two of the three lawmakers have since been expelled by the Republican supermajority, on the excuse that they had violated decorum. You can’t ignore the racism behind the expulsions: The two expelled are African American men, while the third, who escaped expulsion by a single vote, is a white woman. 

Justin Jones, one of the two expelled lawmakers, said that the proceedings did “not seem like America. … To expel voices of opposition and dissent is a signal of authoritarianism and it is very dangerous.” 

Tennesseans elected Jones and his fellow expelled member Justin Pearson through the democratic process. And before voters are tasked with a special election to consider their reappointments to the position, their home county’s legislative body gets to weigh in: County commissioners under the state’s constitution have the power to appoint (or re-appoint!) interim lawmakers until a special election can be held—which they have.

In the 24 years since the Columbine High School massacre, there have been 377 school shootings, affecting hundreds of thousands of students. In America today, the leading cause of death among children is gun violence. How many more must die, before mostly Republican lawmakers (and some Democrats) in Congress and state legislatures decide to reject the millions of dollars of NRA and gun manufacturers’ contributions they receive? 

The authoritarians do not quit: This coming Friday, Republicans will convene in Nashville—the scene of last month’s mass shooting and the controversial expulsion of Jones and Pearson—for an RNC donor retreat. And the NRA will still be holding its 152nd annual meeting on this coming weekend, April 14-16, in Indianapolis, which will draw over 70,000 people.

But the patriarchs are growing scared—hence the need for the crackdowns in the first place, and the growing boldness of their legal tactics. And we—the supporters of abortion rights and U.S. democracy—refuse to back down.

Up next:

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Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.