For those American readers not old enough to remember a time before the nationwide legalization of abortion through the court case known as Roe v. Wade (1973), let me remind you of some of the attributes of that era.
The prevailing law made it very difficult to get an abortion in the United States, but not impossible. The real question was how much danger a pregnant woman was willing to face in the illegal “back alley” operations that were available. You see, as with most things illegal, a “black market” existed which would not only eliminate the unborn fetus, but often kill the distraught mother as well. If you were well off and determined, you could go abroad and have the operation performed with relative safety—often making the whole issue one of class privilege. Behind the scenes, one found two dramas played out: (a) the frantic, sometimes near-suicidal despair of the pregnant woman, often only a teenager, and (b) the sanctimonious prattle of those anti-abortionists —mostly men—who said they represented the will of an imagined deity.
Having said this, I do not want the reader to believe that there is no moral question when it comes to abortion. From an evolutionary standpoint, the fetus is a potential human being upon conception and may well have a “moral right” to that life trajectory. Yet that right exists within a broader context which requires that it should be balanced against a woman’s “moral right” to control her own body and the child’s “moral right” not to be born into an environment where he or she is basically unwanted. If we were to deal with this issue logically, the real answer to the dilemma of competing rights is surely free and universally available contraception—along with sensible sex education.
Anti-Abortion and Gun Mania—An Eerie Connection
There is yet another relevant fact to consider. Remember that the whole anti-abortion movement assumes that human life is uniquely valuable. However, our societies often do not act as if human life is something special—morally or otherwise. Take a look at the essay I wrote in June 2019 entitled “The Alleged Preciousness of Human Life.” I think it lays this failing out clearly and convincingly. Here in the United States, this fact is most obviously brought home by the society’s glorification of guns and the resultant deadly mayhem.
Actually, there is an eerie connection between the abortion issue and gun mania. It runs, of course, through the Republican Party. At the end of July 2021, “228 Republican members of Congress told the Supreme Court that it should overturn Roe v. Wade and release the court’s ‘vise grip on abortion politics.’” These are the same politicians who have sworn loyalty to the official Republican party platform that states “We uphold the right of individuals to keep and bear arms, a natural inalienable right . . . secured by the Second Amendment. Lawful gun ownership enables Americans to exercise their God-given right of self-defense.” In other words, the Republicans who demand that the courts subscribe to their view of the “right to life” of unborn children are the same ones who insist that each citizen has a right to possess society’s chief instrument of death. In this effort they invoke, once again, the approval of that imagined deity. They also misinterpret the Second Amendment and play fast and loose with such words as “natural” and “inalienable.” Well, as it is often said of American politics, hypocrisy is the name of the game.
Both abortion “rights” and gun “rights” are parts of a continuing American culture war—which also includes other hot topics such as real equality for Blacks, Native Americans, women in general, homosexuals, and transgender people, as well as other questions such as multiculturalism.
None of these issues existed as publicly divisive ones before the 1960s. Before that time, the misleading though strongly promoted image of American society was white, male, heterosexual, and benevolent. For those old enough to recognize it, the benign version of this model was given in a classic TV show called The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which aired from 1952 to 1966. The resulting false picture of the near-perfect American family dwelling in a community where there were no serious social problems became so iconic that, subsequently, many Americans came to idealize the 1950s. One strongly suspects that the anti-abortion and pro-gun lobbies still do.
The Ozzie and Harriet model had broken down by the second half of the 1960s. What shattered the iconic image were (a) the demand for equal rights, both in social and political terms, for, initially, the country’s Black minority and female majority—that is, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement and (b) opposition to the Vietnam War, which shredded any claims of “God-given” moral exceptionalism for the nation.
The “excrement hit the fan” the moment these campaigns for equal rights and peace began to gain political backing. People knew this was happening because new laws came into existence: anti-discrimination laws and others like the “war-powers act” which sought to limit presidential power to wage undeclared war. These were seen as progressive moves attuned to a different, if yet unfulfilled, humane canon of American ideals.
From that general moment until today, the progressive equality camp has been engaged in a culture war—really a struggle for political power—with the camp that favors the traditional white-male-heterosexual-anti-abortionist setup.
For the past five years Donald Trump has been the leader of the latter camp, and this alignment helped him win the presidency in 2016. During this time Trump has been accused of racism, misogyny and sexual harassment, being a deadbeat, tax evasion, nepotism, blackmail, compulsive lying, encouraging police violence, subversion and insurrection, and being an advocate for the destruction of the world’s climate, among other things. If even half of these allegations are true, it means that the white-male-heterosexual-anti-abortionist crowd is quite willing to have a criminal personality with fascist leanings as their leader.
One way to interpret this is that, for this camp, democracy is not an important issue. It was democracy that led to the progressive change they hate and fear, and democracy that seems unable to reverse this course as quick as they would like. If voter rolls expand and gerrymandering is corrected, their influence will shrink. Under these circumstances this side in the culture war is willing to throw democracy out in favor of an authoritarian government run by thugs. We already see intimations of this in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, to say nothing at the U.S. capital on January 6, 2021.
One might ask, can the sane citizens of the U.S. take hope in Trump’s defeat in 2020? The answer is, perhaps not. If Donald Trump keeled over from a fatal coronary tomorrow, we would still be in trouble as a nation. One indicator of this, relevant to the abortion question, is that, in his brief stay in the White House, he was able to appoint to the Supreme Court three reactionary judges—making the balance 6 to 3 in favor of decisions turning the clock back to a pre-progressive time. The constitutional argument these six judges will most likely use toward this end is “states rights”—turning important social decisions over to state legislatures even if these bodies are filled with anti-democratic, conspiracy-theorist, paranoid, irrational politicians.
Democratic Party Weakness
This brings us full circle back to Roe v. Wade. “At issue before the court is a Mississippi law that bars most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy [Roe v. Wade set the cut off at 24 weeks when most experts believe fetus viability occurs.] There is no exception for rape or incest. The court will render its decision by next June, in the lead up to the mid-term elections.” Upholding the Mississippi law would invalidate Roe v. Wade and the legal status of nationwide abortion.
If legal precedent was a factor in this contest, there would be no doubt that Roe v. Wade would be upheld. For over forty years both lower court and past Supreme Court decisions have upheld the present law affirming the “woman’s right to choose an abortion before viability.” But, because the Trump administration managed to shift the balance of power on the high court, most observers now expect that Roe v. Wade will fall. Like wolves circling a wounded prey, various states with Republican legislatures have “introduced more than 500 restrictions on abortion over the past four months, a huge increase from previous years.”
In the meantime, the Democratic administration of Joe Biden has not spoken out strongly about the possible demise of Roe v. Wade. In fact, President Biden, who is Catholic and perhaps fears increased criticism by the Catholic Church, has refused to use the word “abortion” in public. His administration has also chosen not to challenge other conservative icons, such as the issue of gun control (or lack thereof). Put it all together and one suspects that President Joe Biden is a man bypassed by time. He is a politician of an age when bipartisan cooperation, and thus meaningful compromise, was possible. Yet this ended with the Obama presidency (2009-2017), when the Republican leadership, which is still in place, systematically attempted to defeat or stall everything President Obama attempted to accomplish. Biden was a witness to all of this in his role as vice president, but he seems to have learned nothing from that experience.
So here is the situation: (1) An ex-president with a sociopathic personality leads a Republican minority of mostly white, heterosexual, male conspiracy theorists who have also taken up the cause of outlawing most abortions and given half the chance, are perfectly willing to selectively overthrow the U.S. Constitution; (2) the defense of the realm is in the hands of Democratic Party leaders who, for the most part, have misjudged the current situation and rely on traditional bipartisanship—to wit: they are trying to compromise with those who do not respect the present democratic system; (3) consequently, leaders like Joe Biden have probably lost that part of the nation’s progressive achievements encoded in Roe v. Wade, and perhaps a lot more; (4) finally, in 2022 there will be mid-term elections for the Congress—to reelect the Republicans as they now exist is to put into power the bigoted, the prevaricators, and often the deranged.
It is anyone’s guess if, devoid of able and forceful Democratic leadership clearly articulating what is at stake, enough voting American citizens will understand the risk or have the motivation to stop a reactionary takeover.
(Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. His story was first published at CounterPunch.org.)