What “Let the States Decide” Ignores

There are a number of legal and practical objections to Republicans’ recent, deeply misleading efforts to convince Americans that leaving abortion restrictions to the states is a “moderate” position. The most obvious is that fundamental constitutional liberties are just that–fundamental. Legislators don’t get to vote on whether to allow freedom of speech or religion within their states (a good thing, if you live in places like Indiana, where the GOP super-majority would undoubtedly limit those civil liberties).

Practical objections are numerous: legislative bodies are conspicuously devoid of medical expertise, and ideological lawmakers have demonstrated that they have no understanding of the real-world complexities of the decisions involved; laws that require women to travel long distances for critical medical care discriminate against low-income patients…Most of you reading this post can supply a number of others.

But it wasn’t until I read a recent opinion essay in the New York Times that I had a small epiphany: leaving the issue to the states–despite the pious rhetoric emphasizing voting– is also profoundly anti-democratic, and not just in states like Indiana where citizens lack access to initiatives and/or referenda. Successful gerrymandering–partisan redistricting–ensures that “the people” lack the means to make such decisions.

As Jamelle Bouie writes:

Nearly everywhere Republicans hold power, they fight to rewire the institutions of government in the hope that they will then generate the desired result: more and greater Republican power.

And so we have the North Carolina Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican majorities, the Ohio Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican supermajorities, the Florida Legislature gerrymandered to produce Republican supermajorities, and the Florida Supreme Court overhauled to secure and uphold Republican priorities.

The states’ rights case for determining abortion access — let the people decide — falters on the fact that in many states, the people cannot shape their legislature to their liking. Packed and split into districts designed to preserve Republican control, voters cannot actually dislodge anti-abortion Republican lawmakers. A pro-choice majority may exist, but only as a shadow: present but without substance in government.

Polling on the issue of abortion proves his point. Even in deep Red states, pro-choice voters outnumber forced birth supporters by considerable margins, as we’ve seen in states like Kansas and Kentucky where voters have the means to mount constitutional referendums.

In states that lack those mechanisms, as Bouie notes, Republican legislators or jurists unwilling to concede to majority opinion (or constitutional precedent) can respond with the dead hand of the past.

Both the federal courts and the Arizona Supreme Court have conjured a past that smothers the right to bodily autonomy. Anti-abortion activists are also trying to conjure a past, in the form of the long-dormant Comstock Act, that gives government the power to regulate the sexual lives of its citizens. As Moira Donegan notes in a column for The Guardian, “Comstock has come to stand in, in the right-wing imagination, for a virtuous, hierarchically ordered past that can be restored in a sexually repressive and tyrannically misogynistic future.”

This effort may well fail, but the drive to leash the country to an imagined vision of a reactionary past should be seen as a silent confession of weakness. The same is true, for that matter, of the authoritarian dreams of the former president and his allies and acolytes….

Put a bit differently, a confident political movement does not fight to dominate; it works to persuade. It does not curate a favorable electorate or frantically burrow itself into our counter-majoritarian institutions; it competes for power on an even playing field, assured of its appeal and certain of its ability to win. It does not hide its agenda or shield its plans from public view; it believes in itself and its ideas.

That last paragraph is a succinct description of where we are as a nation right now. In far too many states, very much including my own state of Indiana, the GOP has “curated a favorable electorate.” Republicans have also benefitted mightily from counter-majoritarian institutions that have bestowed extra electoral clout on rural voters and low-density populations.

Regular readers of this blog are well aware of my periodic rants about the pernicious and anti-democratic effects of gerrymandering, but I didn’t understand until I read this essay that the practice is also an essential tool for depriving American citizens of their bodily autonomy and other civil liberties.

Gerrymandering is a critical part of the effort to return America to the past of GOP wet dreams…..


Words And Deeds

Among the hackneyed adages we all exchange from time to time is the one that admonishes us to Ignore what people say; instead, we’re told to look at what they do. These sorts of standard sayings persist in the culture because they point to a central truth, and this one is no different. Actions really do speak louder than words.

Which brings me to Arizona.

As everyone who reads or listens to the news now knows, the Arizona Supreme Court recently struck down a 15-week limit on abortion, and instead revived an 1864 law banning the procedure–a law so old, it preceded Arizona statehood. The law they revived reads:

“A person who provides, supplies or administers to a pregnant woman, or procures such woman to take any medicine, drugs or substance, or uses or employs any instrument or other means whatever, with intent thereby to procure the miscarriage of such woman, unless it is necessary to save her life, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not less than two years nor more than five years.”

Arizona only became a state in 1912.

Given the toxic politics of abortion bans in the wake of Dobbs, Republicans in the state publicly decried the ruling. Even those who had previously supported total bans issued more “moderate” criticisms of the court’s decision. But then–as another hoary phrase might have it–the rubber hit the road. Democrats in the Arizona legislature proposed to repeal the law–and Republicans refused to allow that repeal to go forward.

As the AP reported:

The Arizona Legislature devolved into shouts of “Shame! Shame!” on Wednesday as Republican lawmakers quickly shut down discussion on a proposed repeal of the state’s newly revived 1864 law that criminalizes abortion throughout pregnancy unless a woman’s life is at risk.

The state Supreme Court cleared the way on Tuesday for enforcement of the pre-statehood law. Arizona abortion providers vowed Wednesday to continue service until they’re forced to stop, possibly within weeks.

State legislators convened as pressure mounted from Democrats and some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, for them to intervene.

House Democrats and at least one Republican tried to open discussion on a repeal of the 1864 abortion ban, which holds no exceptions for rape or incest. GOP leaders, who command the majority, cut it off twice and quickly adjourned for the week. Outraged Democrats erupted in finger-waving chants of “Shame! Shame!”

It is interesting, however, that–despite the candidates’ frequent allusions to their (Christian) religiosity and Right-wing bona fides, none of the ads talk about abortion. And as the media has reported, rather than repeating his frequent previous boasts about being the President who named the Justices who gutted Roe v. Wade, even Trump has tried to “moderate” his position by coming out for a Dobbs-like “states’ rights” position.
What has happened in Arizona should serve as a lesson to voters who might be tempted to believe these GOP efforts to downplay their efforts to end reproductive freedom for America’s women. Once in office, that new not-so-moderate “moderation” will evaporate.
Ignore what they say–and take note of what they do.

Barefoot And Pregnant

I am hopeful that women–and men who care about women– will save democracy in November. If so, it will be “thanks” to the ideologues on the Supreme Court, especially Justice Samuel Alito. His profoundly misogynistic and intellectually dishonest decision in Dobbs prompted a renewed national conversation over the consequences when judges and legislators presume to over-rule medical professionals.

In November, however, voters won’t just determine the fate of abortion restrictions. Unbelievable as it may seem, there are serious efforts underway to restrict access to birth control.

First, abortion.

Special elections in Red states have uniformly confirmed that–where reproductive rights are concerned–even political identities take a back seat. A large number of polls confirm that support for abortion bans has plummeted in the wake of Dobbs. Although I’d seen a number of polls showing substantial gains in support for reproductive rights, I was surprised to read that a recent Axios-Ipsos poll found 81% of Americans agreeing with the statement “abortion issues should be managed between a woman and her doctor, not the government.” That number included 65% of Republicans, 82% of Independents and 97% of Democrats.

The dilemma for Republicans is very real, because a substantial portion of their base remains extreme on the issue. A Republican candidate who tries to soften the party’s draconian stance on abortion in order to appeal to voters turned off by  intransigence on the issue will be vilified–and deserted–by the party’s zealots. And since those zealots are the voters most likely to turn out for primary elections, Republicans in Red states will run hard-Right culture warriors in November. Here in Indiana, Republican Senate candidate Jim Banks wants a national abortion ban with zero exceptions. (If the woman dies, well, them’s the breaks, baby…) Even in Indiana, that’s not a popular position.

In November, voters in a number of swing states will face referenda on abortion. Democrats promising to codify Roe and explicitly repeal the Comstock Act should get a boost.

Then there’s birth control.

American women should hope the federal government stays in Democratic hands, because forced birth Republicans aren’t going to be satisfied with banning abortion. They’re coming for birth control too.

It may surprise many people that there is a a concerted effort going on quite literally under their noses—on the screens of their smartphones, tablets, and laptops—to sow distrust, uncertainty, and fear of ordinary birth control among this country’s young people and particularly, young women.

In most instances the folks responsible for fostering this distrust are the same people vehemently opposed to abortion. Their failure to see any dissonance in advocating such contradictory positions might be perplexing—if you didn’t take their motivation into account. It’s the natural fulfillment of what they would consider an ideal society: one where men are in control, and women know their place.

Salon has recently tracked a sophisticated and well-financed Rightwing “information blitz” on social media, warning of the hazards of birth control.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, they’ve now trained their focus on hormonal birth control, hysterically amplifying its alleged “hazards” to create a narrative of uncertainty ripe for what they see as the conservative-dominated highest court’s next logical step….

Physicians say they’re seeing an explosion of birth-control misinformation online targeting a vulnerable demographic: people in their teens and early 20s who are more likely to believe what they see on their phones because of algorithms that feed them a stream of videos reinforcing messages often divorced from scientific evidence.

One “influencer” candidly shared his motivations:

With fewer women on the pill, more women will become mothers, and some of them will drop out of the workforce and discover fulfillment and happiness as wives and homemakers. This is the real crisis that the Washington Post and the other Left wing rags are worried about. The last thing that the elites want to see is a movement of women fully embracing their own womanhood, and men fully embracing their manhood.

During the fifty years between Roe and Dobbs, most Americans shrugged off the efforts of “pro-life” activists, assuming that the Supreme Court would not overturn a settled constitutional right. Most reasonable people have a similar reaction to warnings that access to birth control will be next. (Those people haven’t read Justice Alito’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case.)

Fanatics who want to take this country back to a time before there were “uppity” women (and gays and Blacks) are a minority. But they are zealous and committed and a lot of them are running for office.

Women aren’t returning to “barefoot and pregnant” status. Voters–male and female– who understand what’s at stake will vote Blue in November. I hope there are enough of them.


What Is The Comstock Act?

During the recent Supreme Court argument over Mifepristone, Justices Alito and Thomas both raised the possibility that a case brought under the Comstock Act would be stronger than the one being argued. (Legal scholars have noted the multiple deficiencies in the current case, which–had Trump not appointed an intellectually-dishonest extremist to a Texas federal judgeship–would never have reached the Supreme Court.)

What, you may ask, is the Comstock Act?

Back in 1999, I edited “Free Expression in America: A Documentary History” for Greenwood Press. Producing the book required me to identify, reprint and explain documents that told the evolving story of America’s free speech jurisprudence. I began with “Foundations of Liberty”–the Magna Carta, Areopagitica and Cato’s Letters–proceeded through Common Sense, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the First Amendment and several others, and on through America’s various battles with censorship to the late 1990s.

In a section titled “1900-1950: A Half-Century of Paternalism” I included “Birth Control and Public Morals: An Interview with Anthony Comstock.” I introduced the interview by noting that contemporary readers might come away considering Comstock a caricature. (Even at his most influential, he was widely ridiculed.) Comstock founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and he saw vice pretty much everywhere he looked. He campaigned against the publication of “vile books,” which he argued were responsible for “debauching” young men, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that he considered any publication dealing in any way with sex to be “vile.” He was particularly offended by then-current efforts to provide women with birth control information.

The Act reads as follows:

Every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing which is advertised or described in a manner calculated to lead another to use or apply it for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and

Every written or printed card, letter, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or notice of any kind giving information, directly or indirectly, where, or how, or from whom, or by what means any of such mentioned matters, articles, or things may be obtained or made, or where or by whom any act or operation of any kind for the procuring or producing of abortion will be done or performed, or how or by what means abortion may be produced, whether sealed or unsealed; and

Every paper, writing, advertisement, or representation that any article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing may, or can, be used or applied for producing abortion, or for any indecent or immoral purpose; and

Every description calculated to induce or incite a person to so use or apply any such article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine, or thing—

Is declared to be non-mailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier.” 

The Comstock Act was passed in 1873, and although it hasn’t been explicitly repealed, most lawyers believe that intervening case law has rendered it unenforceable. 

Justices Alito and Thomas are so intent upon banning abortion they have evidently overlooked the sweep of the Act, which would go far, far beyond preventing abortifacients from being mailed. Comstock was intent upon preventing the dissemination of anything and everything he found “vile,” including, in his own words “intemperance, gambling and evil reading.” He classed contraceptives with pornography, and when questioned about that, replied that “If you open the door to anything, the filth will pour in and the degradation of youth will follow.”

Even during his lifetime, Comstock was widely regarded as an unbalanced anti-sex zealot; his Society for the Suppression of Vice was intent upon censoring books, magazines or other materials describing or touching on sex, very much including medical information and information about contraception. (The Comstock Act at one time prevented the mailing of anatomy textbooks to medical students.)

In Comstock’s fanatic view, “Any indecent or immoral use” covered a lot of ground, much of it misogynistic. There’s a reason a recent biography of him is titled “The Man Who Hated Women.”

Trying to resuscitate Comstock’s “zombie law” will raise some interesting legal questions. Can the anti-abortion provisions be severed from the clearly unconstitutional censorship provisions of the Act? Does the prohibition against use of the U.S. mail extend to Federal Express and other private carriers? 

Are Alito and Thomas so desperate to control the lives and reproductive liberties of American women–so desperate to take us back to a time when women were breeding property– that they’re willing to revive Comstockery


One More Time

There are numerous reasons to vote straight Blue this November. But forgive me for returning to my argument that reproductive rights tops them all, and not just because women deserve the same bodily autonomy as men.

In a very real sense, Justice Alito threw down the gauntlet in Dobbs. That decision didn’t just eliminate a constitutional right that American jurisprudence had recognized for fifty years–it dealt a potentially fatal blow to the philosophy upon which our  entire constitutional edifice rests.

Before I (once again) explain why that assertion is not hyperbole, let me connect the dots between Dobbs and the recent, blatantly theocratic decision from Alabama equating a frozen embryo with a living, breathing child. As Jamelle Bouie recently wrote in the New York Times, key parts of the Republican coalition demand fetal personhood.

There’s no question that the Alabama decision would not have been possible without the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which revoked the constitutional right to an abortion. In doing so, the court gave states and state courts wide leeway to restrict the bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom of Americans, in the name of protecting life.

That the Dobbs decision would threaten I.V.F. was obvious from the moment the Supreme Court released its opinion in June 2022. That’s why, toward the end of 2022, Senate Democrats introduced a bill to protect the right to use in vitro fertilization. It did not come up for a vote.

Bouie points out that the Justices who delivered Dobbs were placed on the Court as part of an explicit transaction in which Trump traded American women’s rights for the support of Evangelical voters.

What’s important, for thinking about a second Trump presidency, is that fetal personhood is the next battlefield in the anti-abortion movement’s war on reproductive rights, and conservative evangelicals are among those groups waving the standard. As one such activist, Jason Rapert of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, told The New York Times regarding the Alabama court decision, “It further affirms that life begins at conception.”

At least 11 states, The Washington Post notes, have “broadly defined personhood as beginning at fertilization in their state laws.”

It does not matter whether Trump rhetorically supports access to I.V.F. treatments. What matters is whether he would buck the priorities of his most steadfast supporters and veto a bill establishing fetal personhood across the United States.

As we all know, he would not.

A Republican win in November would guarantee further erosion of reproductive rights– but as I have repeatedly argued, it would do far more than that.

Dobbs was a frontal attack on the doctrine of substantive due process, often called the “right to privacy.” That doctrine confirmed the American principle that certain “intimate” individual decisions—including one’s choice of sexual partners or the decision to use contraception– are none of government’s business.

Constitutional scholars argue that the right to personal autonomy has always been inherent in the Bill of Rights, but it was  explicitly recognized in 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut. Connecticut’s legislature had passed a law prohibiting the use of birth control by married couples. The law prohibited doctors from prescribing contraceptives and pharmacists from filling those prescriptions.The Supreme Court struck down the law, holding that whether a couple used contraceptives was not a decision government is entitled to make.

The majority recognized that recognition of a right to personal autonomy—the right to self-government—is essential to the enforcement of other provisions of the Bill of Rights.  Justices White and Harlan found explicit confirmation of it in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—which is where the terminology “substantive due process” comes from. Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment—the Justices agreed on both its presence and importance.

The doctrine of Substantive Due Process draws a line between decisions that government has the legitimate authority to make, and decisions which, in our system, must be left up to the individual. I used to tell my students that the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to decide. What books you read, what opinions you form, what prayers you say (or don’t)—such matters are outside the legitimate role of government. The issue isn’t whether that book is dangerous or inappropriate, or that religion is false, or whether you should marry someone of the same sex, or whether you should procreate: the issue in America is who gets to make that decision.

Enabling autocracy–destroying our current system of democratic majorities restrained by the Bill of Rights– requires eliminating substantive due process. Dobbs thus opened a pathway to an enormous expansion of government power.

Outlawing IVF is just a way station…..