So Goes Reproductive Freedom, So Goes Democracy

Bodily autonomy is inextricably linked to the integrity and durability of the body politic—with threats to one reinforcing threats to the other.

Pro-abortion demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2024, as the Court hears arguments on whether to limit the use of mifepristone, a medication that’s used in nearly two-thirds of all abortions nationally. (Michael Nigro / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

When people consider what it means to be a democracy on the decline, plot points of the recent film Civil War come to mind: a U.S. president who disregards the Constitution to nab a third term. Crackdowns on dissent and the media. Leaders using the military to break up public demonstrations.

While that is, of course, representative of growing authoritarianism, recent history suggests that rollbacks on bodily autonomy and reproductive freedoms are also flashing red lights for would-be regimes. 

Elected authoritarians undermine the rule of law by positioning themselves as defenders of traditional values, spreading misinformation, and stacking the judiciary with their political allies.

  • In Hungary, far-right leader Victor Orbán has prioritized bans on gender studies and school materials deemed “LGBTQ propaganda.”
  • In Brazil, former President Bolsonaro attacked the press, sabotaged voting systems, and repeatedly clashed with the judiciary; under his leadership, Brazilian lawmakers introduced dozens of bills to restrict abortion. 

The standing of the United States among modern democracies also has continued to ebb. The capture of the federal courts and installation of a conservative supermajority on the U.S. Supreme Court not only sounded the death knell for Roe v. Wade but ushered in the chaotic judicial aftermath we are now experiencing—with not one but two abortion cases back on the Court’s docket this term. 

The anti-democratic through-line points toward fissures in other aspects of free and fair representation. A majority (67 percent) of Americans who live in states where abortion is banned want the procedure to be legal; that can only be seen as an abject failure of democratic systems and structures. This is further reflected in states where abortion has been on the ballot (going six-for-six); people overwhelmingly voted to restore abortion rights where gerrymandered legislatures would have otherwise passed and enforced bans. Moreover, the introduction of nearly 400 anti-trans bills in state legislatures across the country hardly reflects the priorities and will of the majority of voters. 

Reproductive rights do not exist in a vacuum. Bodily autonomy is inextricably linked to the integrity and durability of the body politic—with threats to one reinforcing threats to the other. Targeting women leaders like Maria Ressa and Suyen Barahona, has proved a powerful political tool for illiberal leaders, a bargaining chip that not only helps them gain power but consolidate and maintain it. 

For Trump and Bolsonaro, anti-abortion stances enabled them to forge alliances with evangelical Christians, which helped to elect them. Trump, now the presumptive nominee, has bragged about his role in overturning Roe, even as he attempts to distance himself from some of the most regressive new state bills (or in the case of Arizona, renewed from 1864). 

Seeking to court evangelical voters, he recently told TIME Magazine that he wouldn’t commit to saying whether states could monitor or punish women who have abortions. 

“Misogyny and authoritarianism are not just common comorbidities but mutually reinforcing ills,” writes Harvard Kennedy School’s (and Ms. contributor) Erica Chenoweth. In other words, leveraging these in tandem is a key tactic in the authoritarian playbook. 

“Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation. [F]ully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist,” Chenowith writes. 

In the United States, philanthropic support for democracy and for girls, women, and LGBTQ people encompasses a tiny fraction of total investment dollars. So how do we ensure that this nexus is addressed and adequately supported? 

In our respective roles—as head of the U.S. program for Open Society Foundations and a feminist advocate and writer—we’ve got some ideas.

First, pro-democracy and progressive funders, or both, simply must be deliberate and full-throated—in word and deed—that the fight for robust democratic structures and gender justice is one and the same. This simply means elevating these connections wherever and whenever one has influence whether it is in the media or the corridors of power. Raise your voice boldly.   

This also entails determining where reproductive and LGBTQ rights are on the line, mapping it with states fighting for voting rights and representation, and investing at the intersection of the two issues. For those supporting direct democracy initiatives in 2024—whether it is Florida’s abortion ballot measure or fair maps in Ohio—it means funding those efforts not just for a single win, but to harness momentum in those communities and coalitions that builds lasting democratic reforms

Here’s the main takeaway—so well-articulated by our colleague Pamela Shifman, president of the Democracy Alliance: “The struggle for democracy and for gender, racial and economic justice is one fight. It’s our fight.”

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About and

Laleh Ispahani is the executive director of Open Society-U.S., the U.S. component of the Open Society Foundations, a foundation dedicated to advancing justice, democratic governance, and human rights in the United States and globally. At Open Society, she oversees substantial investments aimed at advancing racial equality, inclusive democracy, and combatting hate in the U.S. She has special expertise in protecting and expanding the right to vote, ensuring that the internet remains an open and secure platform for free expression and civic participation, and democracy promotion. These days, she is heavily focused on work that protects the right to abortion and fights corporate consolidation of media and data. She lives in New York City with her delightful daughter.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the executive director of Ms. partnerships and strategy. A lawyer, fierce advocate and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America, Weiss-Wolf has been dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. She is also the executive director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Center at NYU Law. Find her on Twitter: @jweisswolf.