It’s looking like Trump’s three nominees on the US Supreme Court, joining three other Republican appointees to give that court its largest reactionary majority in memory is about to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that gave women the right to an abortion.
Such a decision in the current case before the High Court, which involves Mississippi’s recently passed ban on the abortion of any fetus where a “heartbeat” can be detected, would be a major loss for women’s rights, particularly in the Republican Party-dominated states that can be expected to push rapidly for bans on abortion if they haven’t passed such laws already (some 21 such states are said to be preparing legislation to outlaw abortions like Mississippi and Texas have done if the High Court overturns its long-standing ruling denying states the right to ban abortions outright).
But I would argue that in the long run this legal U-turn, if it happens, may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for the reactionaries and the white fundamentalist Christian zealots whom the Republican Party has been pandering to for decades over this issue of “reversing Wade.”
The damage done by Roe v. Wade to broader right-left political debate cannot be overstated. The Democratic Party, since the Roe v. Wade decision was rendered just two days after Richard Nixon’s second term began on January 1973, has been able to put forward candidates for state and national office since then whose economic, class, foreign policy, health care, education and environmental positions could be as bad as any Republican’s, and still have hopes of winning elections by declaring their support for Roe v. Wade.
Supreme Court nominees by Democratic presidents since 1973 have been lackluster centrists on many issues, but these centrist corporatists in the White House have gotten away with it as long as their nominees vowed to “support Roe v. Wade.” There has been no new Thurgood Marshall or William O. Douglas nominated by a Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or Joe Biden.
Meanwhile Republicans have used the slogan “Overturn Roe v. Wade!” as a means to mobilize voters dedicated to forcing women to carry their unwanted or damaged fetuses to term to vote for the most reactionary, pro-corporate, pro-Empire, anti-tax, and-education, anti-regulation candidates imaginable, as long as they promised to help undermine Roe v. Wade.
Back in the late ’60s and through the early ’70s, I recall that fighting for the right of women to control their own bodies was an existential struggle for women and for those who supported women’s rights. I’m old enough to remember, and personally was involved in one case, of a woman needing to find a safe abortion back when such things did not exist, or where the few places where such a procedure could be obtained the list was so long people would have needed to make an appointment before getting pregnant in order to get the procedure before the due date.
Those were the days of hospital ERs being swamped with victims of botched self-attempted or quack-performed abortions that had led to emergency admissions for perforated uteruses, critical sepsis infections, and even maternal deaths.
A study of statistics for live births, and ER admissions for those above medical ER admissions, on which my wife, just out of college at the time, worked as a 1972 summer job at the Guttmacher Institute in New York, looked at the figures for 1969, the year before New York became the first to legalize abortion, and for 1971, the first full year in which abortions in that state became legal. The finding: the state’s live-birth figures were the same, but ER admissions for perforated uteruses and abortion-caused sepsis infections had fallen to almost zero.
The undeniable conclusion of that study was that virtually all the women who had wanted to abort a pregnancy had done so back when they were illegal, but with many of these abortion attempts leading to grave medical consequences including death for the woman. The same number of babies were being born after abortions became legal in the state proving that legalizing abortions would not lead to vastly more women getting abortions, as opponents had claimed would happen.
Nobody who opposes abortions ever admits this deadly truth. To borrow and adapt a line from Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurrassic Park: “A women who wants to terminate her pregnancy will find a way.”
Should Roe v. Wade become history, the struggle for a woman’s right to control her own body and her own reproduction will continue, but it will become an honest struggle, not a signifier for corrupt neo-liberal corporate candidates in the Democratic Party, and corrupt Republican candidates pandering to a single-issue Christian-theocratic constituency.
Women’s rights are much more than just abortion rights, and the struggle for those rights — to equal pay for the same work, to publicly funded child care, to equal treatment on the job in promotion, working conditions, justice in the case of spousal or partner abuse, medical treatment, etc. — will be easier to fight when there is not simply a court decision being defended from constant attacks and efforts to gradually undermine and weaken it.
With Roe v Wade gone, the struggle for women’s rights at the state level will be re-energized, because the mostly-male Republican run legislatures will be seen for what they are — bastions of male privilege — and women and men in those states will unite and rise up to oust them and their reactionary anti-woman agenda.
Maybe most Americans will no longer go into the streets to demand an end to US wars that are fought far away through US proxies and here at home by desk-top “warriors” who do their dirty work in air-conditioned pods running killer drones, But they will be in the streets demanding a woman’s right to control her body. When they are back in the streets, seeing their collective power, their demands will go well beyond abortion rights.
I predict that if, as appears likely, Roe v. Wade is reversed, Republicans will rue the day the court that they, with the help of crotch-grabbing rapist Donald Trump, packed with anti-woman Federalist Society theocrats, achieved that long-sought political goal.
Hopefully Democratic neo-liberals will come to rue that day too.
It’s not too soon to start thinking about a new drive for an Equal Rights Amendment.