Fifty years ago Sunday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to abortion. The decades-long culture war this sparked has arguably been the defining debate of American politics for two generations now. Last June’s reversal of Roe v. Wade appeared at the time to be an unequivocal victory for the anti-choice side.
But just seven months later, the old adage of being careful what you wish for is looking more and more apt.
Legislators in Missouri and other red states are demonstrating their newly unbound extremism in ways that have even their own voters scrambling to preserve abortion rights. The issue was likely the single biggest factor in collapsing the GOP’s universally predicted “red wave” in last fall’s midterms. Talk of a national abortion-rights law, while not politically possible in the current congressional term, is taking on an air of long-term inevitability.
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History may yet conclude that the fall of Roe was the best thing that could have happened for women’s biological rights.
Remember Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, Missouri’s 2012 Republican nominee to the U.S. Senate? He implied, in essence, that rape victims routinely faked the crime in their zeal to abort their fetuses. It perfectly encapsulated the deep vein of misogyny running through the anti-choice movement. It also ended Akin’s career.
It was one thing when such extremists were just going around saying extreme things. With Roe in place, there were limits to how much damage the Todd Akins of the world could actually do. Women and their allies were free to prioritize taxes and gas prices and other issues.
But now, women and girls in much of America are at that movement’s mercy. And the frightening implications are becoming impossible to ignore.
Within days of the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe last summer, the family of a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to flee Ohio’s newly enacted abortion ban and take her out of state for the procedure. Right-wing media initially dismissed it as fabrication (“An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm,” snarked a Wall Street Journal editorial headline) until police confirmed it. As if such a chilling scenario was unlikely instead of inevitable in the post-Roe world. In Texas alone, some 1,400 women a month are being forced to travel out from under that state’s bizarre anti-abortion law, which is enforced with a $10,000 bounty that any random citizen can pursue in court.
This modern-day Underground Railroad is only going to get busier. The creators of these laws know it, and they’re looking for ways to close the borders. Missouri state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman has suggested that the state’s near-total abortion ban (rape victims included) should somehow govern Missouri women even when they leave the state. Coleman has also suggested censoring internet content that could provide Missouri women with information about out-of-state abortion services. Anyone who thought a little thing like the Constitution would thwart this crowd’s determination to declare women’s bodies state property hasn’t been paying attention.
This radicalism coming out of red-state capitals stands in stark contrast to the public, even in those states. Since the overturn of Roe, voters in six states have been asked to weigh in, and in every instance — including in ruby-red Kentucky and Kansas — they supported abortion rights. No wonder Missouri Republicans are suddenly working to make it more difficult to get referendums on the ballot. They know the voters will end their little Handmaid’s Tale project if given the chance.
Nationally, polls show more than three-quarters of Americans support reasonable abortion rights. That broad support isn’t new, but the Pew Research Center found that the issue rose among the top concerns of voters following Roe’s overturn last year — as confirmed by the midterm results. The fall of Roe has apparently shocked many Americans out of their complacency.
It has also put anti-choice politicians under pressure from their base to match their years of heated rhetoric with action, now that they can. With censorship and travel bans already on the table, it won’t be long before Republican-controlled legislatures start talking about leveling murder charges against women who obtain abortions. It’s the logical outcome of a movement that equates even early-term abortion with murder — a movement that offers less sympathy to a traumatized teenage rape victim than it does to a clump of cells still months away from viability outside the womb.
They will overreach. And if even Kansas voters are standing up and saying “no,” imagine how the rest of the country will react as the forced-birthers become ever-more brazen in their persecution of women. The war that started 50 years ago today in America’s courtrooms and statehouses and streets isn’t over. And the fall of Roe might end up being just the motivation that pro-choice Americans — meaning, the majority of us — needed to eventually win it.
Kevin McDermott is a Post-Dispatch columnist and Editorial Board member. On Twitter: @kevinmcdermott. Email: email@example.com