Happy Sunday! I will be delivering the following “sermon” (via Zoom) at the Danville Unitarian-Universalist Church this morning.
Thank you for asking me back! I’m gratified.
As you all know by this time, my academic background is law—and more specifically, Constitutional law and the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights, the approach to individual liberty that animates it, and the jurisprudence interpreting it tell us when government must respect declarations of “my body, my choice.” We’ve been hearing that slogan a lot from the people who are refusing to be vaccinated—and ironically, they’re often the very same people who label themselves “pro life” and vigorously oppose a woman’s right to control her own body.
I’m here to tell you that the anti-vaxxers throwing that slogan around have it exactly backwards.
The Founders who crafted our Constitution and Bill of Rights were influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and by what we call the “libertarian construct”—the belief that we humans have an inborn right to “do our own thing”—to pursue our own interests, form our own beliefs, and make our own life choices and moral judgments, free of government interference– until and unless we are harming the person or property of someone else, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others.
That approach to human rights requires government to refrain from interfering with citizens’ political or religious beliefs, but it also imposes a governmental duty to protect citizens from harm. Philosophers like Hobbes believed that was a major purpose of government—to keep the strong from taking advantage of the weak, to protect citizens from threats both foreign and domestic. We can certainly quibble over the nature and degree of the harms that justify government action, but if government can protect us from drunk drivers and the dangers of passive smoke, then a dangerous and frequently fatal pandemic is clearly a sufficient basis for government rule-making.
A pregnant woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy, on the other hand, poses no threat of harm to her neighbors.
Despite the rhetoric—the legal issue is not whether abortion is right or wrong, good or bad. The issue is who gets to make that decision, the individuals involved or the government? In our Constitutional system, decisions about the religion you will follow, the books you will read, the political philosophy you’ll embrace, and many others—are all supposed to be left to the individual. What the courts call “intimate” decisions, like those about who you will marry and whether you will procreate, are to be left up to individual citizens, because they are none of government’s business.
I agree with the people who point out that the so-called “pro-life” movement is really pro-birth. Most of the legislators who identify themselves with the pro-life label are clearly unconcerned about women’s lives, or about feeding, housing and educating babies once they are born. But I wasn’t asked to speak to the considerable dishonesties of the anti-choice position; I was asked to focus on what will happen if—as most of us anticipate—the Supreme Court eviscerates or overrules Roe v. Wade.
Before that, however, we need to look at the actual origins of the anti-abortion movement.
Noted religion scholar Randall Balmer has documented those origins. It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after the Court decided Roe v, Wade—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”
Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating them, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
According to Balmer (this is a quote),
Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.
Let me emphasize that. It was rightwing anger about civil rights laws that actually motivated the “Right to life” movement. The Rightwing was savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination wouldn’t cut it—that they would need a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.
The bottom line is that what motivated the Christian Right’s political activism, including but not limited to its opposition to abortion, was racism and defense of racial segregation.
Let’s give credit where credit is due: that tactic has been incredibly successful. Christian Nationalists now own one of America’s two political parties—and I say that as someone who worked hard for the Republican Party for 35 years. Mitch McConnell has achieved the GOP’s fever dream of taking over the Supreme Court, and much as it pains me to say this, with the imminent demise of Roe, we are looking at what is probably the first of many times this Court will roll back individual liberties.
So what now?
If Roe is overruled—or more likely, effectively neutered– there will certainly be some horrendous consequences. But there may also be some unanticipated positives.
We have all come up against the intransigence of the “one issue” anti-choice voters, the people who disagree with Republicans about virtually everything else, but vote Republican because they are “pro life.” Without Roe, I think many of them will abandon the GOP.
Losing Roe will also make it much more difficult to energize a national movement against birth control, which is actually a target of the most rabid anti-choice activists—a significant number of whom are men who want women barefoot, pregnant and back in the kitchen. Bottom line: anti-choice voters have been a mainstay of the GOP–and at the federal level, at least, they will arguably be considerably less motivated.
If Roe is no longer the law of the land, the issue will revert to the states, and a number of states will opt to protect reproductive choice. Those of us who care about women’s autonomy will need to do some serious fundraising to make it possible for poor women in Red states to travel to places where abortion is legal, and that’s a pain. But even now, with abortion theoretically legal, there are many places in the U.S. where clinics are few and far between; women have to travel long distances, put up with bogus, medically-inaccurate “counseling,” and deal with other barriers to the exercise of what is currently a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.
What the de-nationalization of Roe might do–should do–is redirect liberal and pro-choice energies from national to state-level political action. And while there are no guarantees, that could be a huge game-changer.
The current agenda of the Republican Party doesn’t reflect the desires of the American majority–far from it. GOP numbers have been shrinking steadily; some 24% of voters self-identify as Republican. Their electoral success has been due primarily to the 2011 gerrymander, and that was made possible because they controlled a large number of state governments when redistricting took place. More recent GOP vote suppression tactics that have depressed Democratic turnout and disenfranchised Democratic voters have also been facilitated by state-level control. In many states—possibly even Indiana—redirecting voters’ attention to state-level politics could change that.
Without Roe, it is reasonable to predict that the single-issue anti-choice voters that have been a mainstay of the GOP will be less motivated to vote. Pro-choice voters, however, will be newly energized, and polling suggests they significantly outnumber “pro-life” activists. A recent Pew survey has found that 61% of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with 27% saying in all cases and another 34% saying in most cases. Only twelve percent of the public says abortion should be illegal in all cases, and only 26% would outlaw it most cases.
In anticipation of the loss of Roe, some states have already seen efforts to protect reproductive rights. A ballot drive has been launched in Michigan. Reproductive Freedom for All’s petition would affirm the right to make pregnancy-related decisions without interference, including about abortion and other reproductive services such as birth control. The groups leading the effort are Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the Michigan ACLU and an organization called Michigan Voices.
New Jersey has already enshrined abortion rights in state law. Lawmakers in that state bolstered protections for reproductive rights in anticipation of the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision, and Gov. Phil Murphy has signed a bill codifying abortion rights into state law. He also signed a second bill that expands insurance coverage for birth control.
Meanwhile, in states like Florida and South Dakota, lawmakers are rushing to impose new restrictions on abortion, anticipating the Court’s acquiescence with much more restrictive rules.
Knowing our Hoosier legislators, I anticipate some pretty dreadful legislation being introduced here. It will require organization and activism in Indiana to derail what the ridiculous pro-gun, anti-vaccine legislators who call themselves “pro life” will try to do.
Indiana will need an enormous uprising—of women, of men who support women, and especially of liberal churches—if we are going to escape replicating the Handmaid’s Tale here in Hoosierland.