We're In an Abortion Emergency. Democrats Need to Act Like It.

Butch Dill/AP Photo

Women's rights activists march to the Alabama Capitol to protest a law passed last week making abortion a felony in nearly all cases with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. 

As Donald Trump seized control of the Republican Party in 2016, many doubted that the conservative white evangelicals who make up such a key part of the party’s base would rally behind him. Could they put aside their supposed concern for traditional morality and support a con man who cheated on all his many wives and bragged about his ability to commit sexual assault with impunity? The answer, praise be to the heavens, was an enthusiastic yes. What they understood, and some observers didn’t, was that the arrangement was purely transactional: They’d give him their votes, and he’d give them pretty much whatever policies they asked for.

And what they wanted more than anything else was judges, from the lowliest district court all the way up to the Supreme Court. Judges who would say it’s OK to discriminate if you do it in the name of a Christian god, judges who would countenance attacks on voting rights or equality, and above all, judges who would be ready to strike down Roe v. Wade. Unlike his predecessors who offered winks and nods about Roe, Trump made his intentions clear. Asked in his final debate with Hillary Clinton whether he wanted Roe overturned, he said, “That will happen. And that'll happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.”

Both Trump and his religious right supporters got what they wanted. Roe will be gone in a matter of months. And it happened while many Democrats convinced themselves that it wasn’t a real possibility. Or not real enough, at any rate, to see the threat for what it was. After all, don’t two-thirds of the public oppose overturning Roe? Republicans wouldn’t risk the inevitable backlash, would they?

Why yes, they would. In just the past two weeks, Georgia passed a “heartbeat” bill outlawing abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which is often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant; the Missouri legislature outlawed abortion after eight weeks; and most shocking of all, Alabama simply made all abortions illegal, except those performed to save the woman’s life. All of them are in clear violation of Roe, which is precisely the point: As the Alabama legislator who wrote the bill said, “This bill is about challenging Roe v. Wade and protecting the lives of the unborn because an unborn baby is a person who deserves love and protection.”

For many Republicans, however, this was not precisely the plan. Some, like Mitt Romney and Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, have said that the Alabama law goes too far. Many of them support exceptions for rape and incest, which amounts to creating a distinction between blameless women and girls with intact virtue who can get abortions, and the other kind of women, who can’t. But knowing how unpopular it would be to overturn Roe, Republicans have preferred a different legal strategy: gutting the decision in a way that would have the same practical effect but would avoid the dramatic “Roe Overturned!” headlines.

The best way would be to validate TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws at the state level that try to regulate abortion clinics out of existence by requiring them to meet a long list of requirements that are nearly impossible to satisfy. While some TRAP laws have been struck down for being medically nonsensical and imposing an undue burden on women’s abortion rights, if the Supreme Court essentially said those regulations could go to the most absurd lengths a Republican state legislature can devise, it would soon be impossible for any abortion provider to operate in much of the country.

But once Donald Trump was able to install two justices who are almost certainly hostile to Roe, the plan changed, at least for some. With five justices they believe are ready to overturn the decision, they decided to go all the way and force the court’s hand.

And no one should be surprised. It’s not as though the Republican desire to make abortion illegal was some kind of secret. The idea that abortion rights were safe because Anthony Kennedy was around to protect them was always ridiculous. But that complacency was rampant, and its consequence was that Democrats never took the issue of judicial appointments as seriously as Republicans did.

Now we see the results. So what are Democrats going to do about it?

The first thing they have to do is to stop apologizing for supporting abortion rights. We don’t need to hear about how you’re “personally opposed” to abortion but think it should be legal. We don’t need to hear about how you want to make abortions rare. We don’t need to hear how the party needs to “reach out” to people who want to take reproductive rights away. We don’t need to hear about compromise.

What we need is an effort to not only protect but expand abortion rights. That’s why the response to Roe’s demise has to be an effort to pass federal laws as soon as Democrats have control in Washington that will make it possible for all American women, even those who live in states controlled by Republicans, to get abortions when they need them. Fortunately, some of the presidential candidates have been talking in those terms (here’s a proposal to that effect by Elizabeth Warren).

But most of all, Democrats have to act like this is an emergency that demands forceful and sweeping action. They didn’t take the threat seriously enough until now, and this is where we’ve come. Republicans are about to get what they’ve wanted for decades, and Democrats have to mobilize to punish them for it, then roll back the restrictions that are on their way. And they shouldn’t forget that the public will be behind them. 

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