Where voters are allowed to have a say, they give a resounding “yes” to abortion rights. Instead of adjusting their politics accordingly, the GOP just makes it harder for voters to vote.
The United States was officially designated a backsliding democracy in late 2021—a full six months before the fall of Roe v. Wade. At the time, journalists warned that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate.” But can a country that has never truly addressed women’s equality ever be a thriving democracy? And are democracies that have abysmal records on gender equity destined to falter? Explore “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies“—a multimedia project comprised of essays, video and podcast programming, presented by Ms., NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network and Rewire News Group.
Nearly a year after the Supreme Court stripped the right to abortion from American woman, a post-Roe political landscape has come into clearer form, and this much is obvious: Where voters are allowed to have a say, they give a resounding “yes” to abortion rights. And in the months since the Dobbs decision, when voters have had a direct up-or-down yes-or-no on abortion rights, abortion rights have won.
Just last month in Wisconsin, a tight and closely-watched state supreme court election was widely understood to be a referendum on abortion rights, and the pro-choice judge won by a stunning 11 points. And in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and a mass of Democrats running for state legislature enjoyed historic wins, largely because of abortion rights, and Whitmer made good this month on a campaign promise and repealed the state’s archaic 1931 abortion ban.
As Rebecca Traister wrote in a must-read New York magazine piece: Abortion wins elections.
But here’s the problem: Republicans don’t care.
After decades of saying that the question of abortion’s legality should be left to voters and the democratic process, the GOP is grabbing the issue away from their constituents. In Republican-led states, abortion bans are only expanding, even in direct opposition to popular opinion.
- Idaho became the first state in the nation to criminalize helping a minor obtain an abortion out of state.
- Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban. (The six-week ban will take effect only if the state’s current 15-week ban is upheld by the state Supreme Court, pending an ongoing legal challenge.)
- The Tennessee legislature narrowly passed a bill that allows a tiny exception to the state’s harsh abortion ban, and permits doctors to perform abortions to save a pregnant woman’s life—but the passage was narrow because so many Tennessee Republicans didn’t want to allow for a clearer life exception.
What is more authoritarian and more a rejection of basic individual freedoms, than believing the government should be able to force you into pregnancy and motherhood?
This is happening at the same time as the Republican Party is working overtime to make America a less democratic place—one where more liberal voters simply have less of a say that more conservative ones, and where representative democracy is giving way to one-party dominance.
This isn’t a coincidence: There is a direct relationship between authoritarianism and opposition to abortion rights. After all, what is more authoritarian and more a rejection of basic individual freedoms, than believing the government should be able to force you into pregnancy and motherhood? It is impossible to be both a supporter of abortion bans and a (small-d) democrat; authoritarianism is a necessary condition of opposition to abortion rights.
And so it’s not surprising that the anti-abortion GOP is riding roughshod over democratic norms and majority opinion in order to force people into pregnancy and parenthood. It’s not surprising that the GOP has embraced the patriarchal nationalism used by just about every authoritarian movement in the last two centuries, a view that reveres male dominance, demands female subservience, and elevates as “natural” and “traditional” a patriarchal nuclear family in which women have little say but limitless obligations—reproduction chief among them.
There’s a reason that right-wing movements have to force the very social setups they insist are natural and traditional, and it’s because these setups are neither particularly natural nor broadly traditional. Women society-wide having as many babies as God chooses while deferring to men, who enjoy near-total dominance over public, economic and political life? That only happens by force and coercion, which is why, wherever it has happened, it has been forced and coerced—and why you see today’s GOP on such a tear of forced childbearing and coercive patriarchy.
Women (and lots of men) have always resisted these constraints. But for conservatives, it’s not enough to let people do what they want. The demand is for women to do as conservatives say. And when the desire for a patriarchal society comes inevitably in conflict with democracy and individual rights, well, it’s democracy and individual rights that lose.
Abortion wins elections. Democrats should take note. So should Republicans.
But unless Democrats follow through on their election promises, and unless Democrats make sure that elections actually matter—that districts aren’t gerrymandered all to hell, and that Republicans can’t unduly grab power—it won’t matter for women across much of the U.S.
Abortion rights are necessary for the preservation of democracy. They are necessary for any political ideology that claims to cherish individual rights. They are necessary for human freedom. And we are seeing right now, in real time, the lengths to which Republicans will go to undermine democracy, individual rights and human freedom if it means they can force female compliance and implement near-total male dominance.
A version of this story was originally published on April 17, 2023. It originally appeared on Jill.substack.com, a newsletter from journalist, lawyer and author Jill Filipovic.
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