American democracy is at the breaking point, and a supreme court ready to gut or overturn Roe v Wade is the latest warning sign. A radical minority is accumulating ever more power, and they’re threatening to undermine equal rights under the law, basic human freedoms, and democracy itself.
On Wednesday, the supreme court heard arguments in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even for rape and incest survivors. Under the longstanding legal framework of Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey, two of the supreme court cases that shape abortion rights in the US, states cannot outlaw abortion before the point of fetal viability, when the fetus can survive outside of the woman’s body (states can put restrictions on abortion before that point, so long as those restrictions don’t pose an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions). The Mississippi law violates that longstanding supreme court precedent.
Yet the court agreed to hear it anyway, which was the first bad sign – why hear a case that so clearly flies in the face of what the court has already ruled? Wednesday’s oral arguments only contributed to the sense of doom, as a majority of the justices seemed ready and willing to overturn Roe.
This didn’t happen by accident. The rightwing stranglehold on the courts has been a long-term project achieved by devious means. Republicans blocked Barack Obama from appointing dozens of judges to the federal bench, leaving those slots open for Donald Trump to fill. He stacked the courts with conservative reactionaries, many of whom were so unqualified that they failed to get the basic endorsement of the American Bar Association (ABA). Instead of appointing qualified candidates over rightwing stooges, the Trump administration simply cut the ABA out of the judicial vetting process.
The most egregious of these Republican blockades came when Obama tried to appoint Merrick Garland to the supreme court seat vacated by Antonin Scalia. The right cried foul: it was wrong to change the balance of the court, they said, and it was an election year and therefore unfair to allow Obama a supreme court appointment; voters should decide the next president to pick a supreme court judge.
A majority of voters wanted Hillary Clinton to have that role. But our undemocratic and archaic electoral college rules handed the victory to Donald Trump – the second time in less than two decades that the winner of the majority vote lost the White House.
Trump, who ran on a promise of appointing anti-abortion judges who would overturn Roe v Wade, set about doing just that. He appointed Neil Gorsuch to the seat that should have been Garland’s. Then he appointed Brett Kavanaugh, despite the judge facing credible accusations of sexual assault. Finally, and most insultingly, Trump and his Republican Senate allies rammed through the appointment of the explicitly anti-abortion Amy Coney Barrett to the seat vacated by the feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg – in his last year of office, and despite the supposed rule about a president letting the voters decide before an election.
Trump voters – a minority of Americans in both 2016 and 2020 – are about to get what they want: an America in which women and girls are forced into pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood; an America in which women are second-class citizens, not entitled to control over the very bodies they live in, forced to risk their lives in the name of “pro-life” misogyny.
The rest of us are stuck dealing with these minority religious views imposed on us.
Strong majorities of Americans support abortion rights and do not want to overturn Roe. And in any case, the supreme court is supposed to be a bulwark against tyranny, an institution that defends and upholds constitutional rights, not one that punts those rights to the states.
This court is not that. And that’s because of the shameful rightwing devastation of American democracy. Three members of the conservative supreme court majority, after all, were appointed by a traitorous president who fomented an attempted coup against the United States, and who has continued to undermine the electoral process by claiming that the last election, which he lost fair and square, was stolen. His party has devolved into a cult of personality, so tied to one narcissistic tyrant that it didn’t even bother releasing a political platform in the last presidential election. And because the Republican party knows it will lose if it has to play on an even playing field, its members have been systemically undermining voting rights for years.
The demise of abortion rights in the US is the outcome of years of anti-democratic organizing to make it harder for people to vote, gerrymander districts, pull power from various elected offices when Democrats win them, and stack the bench with rightwing judges who will allow it all to happen.
It’s terrifying. And of course forcing women into subservience and traditional roles is part of this process – that’s been the strategy in authoritarian nations throughout history, and it’s a pattern we’re seeing play out now, as the same nations that are scaling back democratic norms and processes are also going after women’s rights.
That American women are facing a hostile supreme court and are looking at a future without abortion rights – and potentially without the constitutional right to contraception – isn’t a matter of law or “life”. It’s a sign of a democracy in decline.