Abortion Rights: Taking the Power at the Ballot Box

12 mins read
abortion rights

I’m a 70-year-old woman with a history of infertility. I’m the adoptive mother of two. I don’t have a personal story to tell about abortion. I’m not worried about my future access to abortion.

But the right to an abortion is still deeply personal to me. I have the right to control my own body, even if that is not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. The Constitution was written by educated, land-holding and even some slave-holding white men for their own benefit. The founding fathers we were brought up to revere didn’t think much of women, free or enslaved Black people, Native Americans or even other white men if they were uneducated and poor. When they said “All men are created equal,” they weren’t using “men” to mean “humans;” they meant white men.

For many people both against and in favor of abortion, it remains a policy issue that centers on when life begins. But the current battle over abortion rights isn’t about policy. It is about an ongoing effort of one group of white men (and those who benefit from the power of white men) to retain the historical political power and cultural control they had for hundreds of years. I’ll call them Republicans because, with few exceptions, even those Republicans who are not motivated by a determination to hold power for the sake of power are now in the grip of those who do. 

Republicans believe their historical hold on power is threatened by the advances of women, the growing population of Black and Brown citizens, and the increasing visibility of people whose lifestyles differ from what was the norm for many years. In particular, the election of a Black president and the near-election of a woman to that office (who received a majority of the popular vote) mobilized those who saw it as signaling the end of white male dominance. Not only is that loss of power repulsive to them, there’s a complementary fear that those who have been oppressed for so long would use their new power to oppress their former oppressors. This is precisely what Civil War era southerners feared if Black slaves broke out of their bonds. 

When seen through the lens of power, it is not hypocritical for those who claim the government can’t tell them to wear a mask to believe they can tell a woman she must carry a baby to term. Nor is it hypocritical for them to call their anti-abortion stance “pro-life” when they also vote against policies that would reduce child poverty, educate preschool children, or make sure no child goes to bed hungry. Edgar Schein, an expert in organizational culture, has differentiated between espoused beliefs and the more potent values that are often unconscious but emerge during times of stress. When it comes to abortion, the espoused belief is the sanctity of life; the underlying value is the preservation of patriarchy.

In the days when white men had all the power, they also had the power to determine consequences for social actions. They could tell offensive “jokes” about race and sexuality without having to be held accountable. They could refuse to even consider women and people of color for jobs and promotion. They could make inappropriate sexual advances. They call this “a different time.” It was not a different time; it was a different power structure, and they want that institutionalized power back. 

If you are a woman who is frightened by Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, it’s because it’s supposed to frighten you. Fear is a way to control. 

If you are a woman who feels powerless at the idea of the Supreme Court taking away a right that 70 percent of the population agrees is a right, it’s because the intention is to render you powerless. 

If you are in a same-sex marriage, if you are a gay member of the military, if you have married a person of another race and you are afraid the Supreme Court is coming for your rights next, it’s because the intention of this decision is to make you feel vulnerable. Rendering someone vulnerable is a way to control.

If you feel demoralized, like you just can’t march another block for basic rights that you thought were acknowledged 50 years ago, it’s because the relentless effort to overturn Roe v. Wade is intended to wear you out.

People who feel afraid, powerless, tired, and vulnerable are less likely to fight back than those who feel powerful.

But we are not powerless. In fact, our power at the ballot box is why the Republicans have put their efforts into restricting access to voting. They have enacted laws that purge people from eligibility lists, prohibit voting by felons who have done their time, and confuse or intimidate voters, and in many places are trying to put in place election officials who will overturn results they don’t like.

This is no longer about policy. It’s about keeping the power we still have and using it to get back the rights we’ve lost or are on the verge of losing. 

We cannot elect politicians from a party whose purpose is to return power to the white men who feel aggrieved that they have to share it. 

Angry at the Supreme Court possibly overturning Roe v. Wade? Get active. And not just on Twitter. And not just about abortion rights. 

Get active about voting rights.

Without voting rights, you cannot retain the right to an abortion, the right to marry the person you love and have children in the way you want, to gather to peacefully protest, to read any book you want, to teach an accurate account of history, and to have fair elections in which the candidate who receives the most votes wins. 

Register voters. Get out the vote. Make phone calls. Write letters. Knock on doors. 

Are you uncomfortable phone banking? More uncomfortable than a woman forced to carry a baby to term?

Don’t complain that you already made phone calls and wrote letters and voted and we’re still in a pickle. There’s no other way. 

And obviously, a simple majority is not sufficient. We have to work hard to keep Democrats in office and flip GOP-held seats. 

The Senate was designed to give states with small populations the power to stop the majority from ruling. It was written into the Constitution to reassure southern states that slavery could not be overturned even if a majority of states wanted to do so. You know where I learned that? The 1619 Project. No wonder Republicans have demonized that project.

We must elect as many Democrats as possible, even those who are not as progressive as you may like or those who are too progressive. 

Even Joe Manchin. We need to retain the speakerships in the House and the Senate.

We must also pay attention to every state and local office. We’ve seen how important each state’s secretary of state is when it comes to securing elections. We’ve seen what state legislatures can do to alter the outcome of elections. We’ve seen how important district attorneys are when it comes to holding police accountable and how elected judges can be unwilling to punish a young man convicted of sexual assault because it would “ruin his life.” All these offices are important.

Finally — and this will be a tough one for a lot of people — we must take every opportunity to vote for, hire, cheer for, and otherwise give opportunities to women, BIPOC individuals, and those from other underrepresented groups. Given a choice between two qualified people — choose the one from the underrepresented group, even if the other candidate has more experience, more endorsements. I’m not saying to advance unqualified people. But given a choice between a qualified member of an underrepresented group and a more qualified white male, choose to disrupt the institutionalized system of power. 

 Does that feel unfair to white men? Listen: Those who have had power for hundreds of years could have chosen to share power. They could have opened the doors, lifted people up, trusted those who were different, and recognized the shift in culture and society. Individuals did that, but as a group, white men did not. They reacted from fear. They chose to double-down on oppression. Sometimes they chose violence. 

We do not need to choose oppression or violence when we have the chance. We can be fearful without reacting from fear. We can recognize that there are other ways to use power — when we have it —without using it to control. But this is a critical time, and we cannot cede the power we still have just because we’re tired and we feel hopeless. 


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Lois Ruskai Melina (she/her) is a writer, retired educator, and former journalist. Her essay collection, The Grammar of Untold Stories, was published in 2020. She is the author of three books on adoption published by HarperCollins. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two dogs.

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