This is three parts:
- The decision overturning Roe v. Wade, what it means, and where we go from here
- And . . . people blame the Democrats
- It’s all about controlling women
I. The Roe v. Wade decision
What It Means?
It means that the reactionary right-wing has succeeded in pushing us back about 50 years.
This is how they did it: For 50 years, they got their voters to the polls, in every election, at all levels. Historically, Democrats don’t vote in midterms and pay no attention to elections at the local level.
The right-wing used abortion as its issue to inflame and motivate the Christian Right. Their messaging was simple because their idea was simple: Abortion is murder and people who perform abortions are murderers. They were filled with righteous anger.
And they voted. Because they turned out for elections, they punched above their numbers.
What We Do Now?
We organize and get out the vote.
Organizations are already in place to help women who need the help. Many will have to travel if they need abortions.
We need a solid majority in Congress after 2022. Here is what the Senate can do – first, eliminate the filibuster, then, reform the Supreme Court.
The Constitution does not specify the number of Supreme Court justices. The number can be changed by Congress.
We’ve had nine justices since the US was sparsely populated. As the country has grown, the number of justices has remained the same. As a result, each justice has disproportionate power. Consider this: We have three branches of government. Control of the legislative branch is divided 535 ways: 100 senators and 435 members of the House. The president has enormous power over one branch of government—but for a limited time. The judicial branch is divided only nine ways, but each justice has a lifetime appointment.
This gives each justice way too much power, which is why it’s such a big deal each time one is appointed.
It also means it can take decades to reverse bad decisions.
If we add more justices they’ll most likely have to divide up in panels. Not every judge will be able to hear every case, so they’ll have to figure out how to issue consistent decisions. Everything about how they operate will change.
It will be important to add justices in a way that is objectively fair. For example, Congress can pass legislation allowing President Biden to add a few seats to compensate for the fact that a Supreme Court seat and dozens of justiceships were stolen from President Obama, and then add two seats every four years bringing the number up to, say, 15.
This can only happen with clear Democratic majorities.
Also, don’t call it court-packing, which has bad associations from the time Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried it. (If you all want to know the story, I can do that in a separate post.)
Call it court reform.
They rolled us backward. We have to get things rolling forward again.
Before the 2020 election, when Democrats thought they might pick up a larger Senate majority, there was a lot of talk about adding Supreme Court justices (and making Washington, D.C., a state).
Now, people are not talking about it much so it doesn’t become a campaign issue that will motivate right-wing voters.
If the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade doesn’t get voters to the polls in 2022, I don’t know what will.
II. A Supreme Court with Three Justices Appointed by Trump Overturns Roe v. Wade . . . and People Blame the Democrats
Yes, you heard that right. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, a certain portion of left-leaning social media exploded with anger at the Democrats: How dare they let this happen? If the Democrats were not so weak, this wouldn’t have happened.
If Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, the Supreme Court would look different right now and this wouldn’t have happened.
So how does it happen that after Roe v. Wade is overturned, people blame the pro-choice party?
Like this: A smart person who wants to cause the left to eat itself starts a rumor like “at any time the Democrats could have made sure this didn’t happen,” without regard for the facts or how politics and government work.
Then before you know it, people are blaming the pro-choice party for the loss of choice.
I am in mourning after the Court’s decision, so I just don’t have the energy to sit and debunk all the crazy theories.
Okay, I’ll debunk one. It goes like this, “Obama or Biden at any time could have codified Roe v. Wade.” People pushing this theory don’t explain what would have stopped a radicalized Supreme Court from overturning such legislation at the same time it overturned Roe v. Wade, but rage-inducing simplification are all about ignoring facts. Some are even claiming (wrongly) that Biden promised to do so as a campaign promise.
Also, um, the House passed the Women’s Health Care Act.
The Christian Right spent five decades turning out their voters with the promise of overturning Roe v. Wade, and then when they succeed, voters blame the Democrats. What a neat trick.
Bashing Democrats helps insure that the Democrats will lose the next few elections, which will put Republicans in power, thereby allowing the Christian Right to win more elections and further solidify its power.
Fact: If the Democrats lose the next few elections, we may sink so deeply into a Christian-fascist state that it will take decades to get out.
How does the trick of blaming Democrats for overturning Roe v. Wade succeed so well?
Right-wing authoritarians have baked-in an advantage: They fall in line. They even like uniforms. (MAGA hats anyone?) Non-authoritarians are disorganized and tend to splinter. So the right-wing (an electoral minority) just needs to get the opposition to eat each other.
People don’t understand that the right-wing worked tirelessly and patiently for almost five decades to achieve their goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. For decades, this promise got their voters to the polls, who showed up in elections at all levels. There are fewer of them, but they punch above their weight because they show up to vote and they stay in line.
There are fewer of them, but they punch above their weight because they show up to vote and they stay in line.
Now People Are Telling Democrats, “See, voting doesn’t work!”
- “See, voting doesn’t work,” is voter suppression. It doesn’t matter if it comes from evil or from ignorance, if you tell people voting doesn’t matter, and if they believe you, they will not vote.
- “See, voting doesn’t matter,” is Orwellian. It’s the ultimate in “up is down.”
The people who appoint Supreme Court justices are elected officials, so if you elect Republicans, you’ll get a conservative Supreme Court. If you elect Democrats, you’ll get a liberal Supreme Court. But there is a campaign out there on social media trying to persuade pro-choice people that voting doesn’t work.
George Orwell taught us how to destroy democracy: Get people to believe the equivalence of “up is down.”
It seems to me the people blaming this on Democrats fall into three groups:
- People who hate the Democrats because they actually think “burn it down and start over” is a good strategy.
- People who don’t understand how government works.
- People who are deliberately trying to cause chaos on the left.
Here’s the logic I encounter from Group 1
I say, “The Democrats can win electoral majorities and make real progress.”
Person in Group 1 tells me that I am “naive and peddling fantasy.”
Then Person X starts bashing Democrats and saying nobody should vote for them.
A step toward “burning it down” is for the Democrats to fail. They need this to happen so they can say “See. The entire system is broken.”
You can spot people in Group 2 because they say things like,
- “I voted Democratic and the Democrats have not solved this problem so I am furious at the Democrats.”
- “Why didn’t Obama just codify Roe v Wade when he had the chance?”
- “This happened because Democrats don’t fight harder.”
Once I get past my fury, I will try again to reach those in Group 2.
For now, I think the best response is this: Dear People Who Are Furious at the Democrats because you voted. Voting is only the beginning. Democracy and self-governance means that each one of us is responsible. See my list and figure out how you can help.
“But Teri, people are really angry so you should be more understanding and encouraging.”
If people are so angry that they can’t figure out who keeps hitting them over the head, they’ll keep getting hit over the head.
Only one party is trying to take away your rights.
III. It’s All About Controlling Women
A certain type of person had a predictable reaction to the news that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade:
Of course. It’s all about controlling women.
You see, laws reflect cultural biases, and for most of world history, laws were mostly about keeping women in their place.
The following sections are excerpts from this book:
Contraceptives were largely illegal in the colonies. After the United States was formed, most states enacted laws prohibiting the advertising, sale, and distribution of contraceptives. As a practical matter, while there were a large number of convictions under the anti-contraceptive laws, contraceptives and information about birth control were widely distributed.
Ironically, many states outlawed contraceptives, but permitted early-stage abortion.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Anthony Comstock, a politician known for his adherence to Victorian standards of morality, decided to do something about what he saw as the problem of vice. In his view, contraceptives allowed for adultery and the spread of venereal diseases. By force of will, he was able to get a bill through Congress called “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” The act specifically defined information about contraceptives as obscene. Anthony Comstock was appointed special agent of the Post Office, with the authority to track and destroy illegal mail and bring offenders to justice. Within a few years, twenty-four states passed equally harsh laws against contraceptives. Connecticut passed the most restrictive chastity laws in the country, making it a crime for even a married couple to use contraceptives.
Margaret Sanger took it as her mission to overturn the Comstock laws. One of eleven children, she was born to a mother who was perpetually pregnant. Margaret trained as a nurse and married an architect. Using contraceptives, she limited the number of her own children to three. Working in New York’s Lower East Side sensitized her to the plight of women who “wore themselves out with continuous childbirth.” Because they were denied safe and effective contraceptives and safe abortions, women passed suggestions among themselves, including “herb teas, turpentine, steaming, rolling downstairs, inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, and shoe hooks.”[i]
After watching a desperate young woman die from a self-induced abortion, Margaret made up her mind to do something. Her resolve was strengthened after caring for another woman who nearly died after a difficult birth. The woman knew another pregnancy would kill her, so she asked the doctor if there was some way she could prevent another pregnancy. The doctor said, “You want to have your cake and eat it too, do you? Well, it can’t be done.”[ii] He advised her to tell her husband to sleep on the roof.
Three months later, Margaret’s telephone rang. The woman’s husband called to tell Margaret that his wife was once again pregnant. Evidently he hadn’t wanted to sleep on the roof. Margaret rushed to their house to find the woman in a room surrounded by her young children. Margaret was unable to save her. She soon slipped into a coma and died. That was it—Margaret could not take any more. She instituted training for women on reproduction, birth control, and sexuality, and tried to spread information about birth control the only way she could, by writing a column in a socialist newspaper.
She was soon arrested and charged with violating the Comstock Act. If found guilty, she could be sentenced to forty-five years in prison. The district attorney who charged her with criminal activity claimed that her crime—disseminating information on birth control—was the moral and legal equivalent of throwing bombs and committing murder.
To avoid conviction and prison, Margaret fled to Canada, where she continued writing about the need to educate women about birth control. Eventually, she returned to the United States to stand trial, defending herself by saying that no woman could call herself free unless she could control her own reproduction and decide when—and if—she became a mother. Because of an outpouring of public support on her behalf, she was not convicted.
She opened a controversial birth control clinic that grew into today’s Planned Parenthood.
In 1936 the Comstock Laws were amended to allow doctors to disseminate contraceptives to patients. Over the next few decades, the Comstock laws were further limited. A landmark Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, struck down Connecticut’s law making it illegal for any person to use contraceptives.[iii] Griswold, the director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, was brought to trial for giving information to married couples about contraceptives. In what was considered at the time a controversial ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Connecticut law infringed on a married couple’s constitutional right to privacy. The hitch was that there is nothing explicitly in the Constitution about privacy. The Supreme Court, however, held that the various guarantees within the Bill of Rights created penumbras, or zones, that established a right to privacy.
In 1950, when Sanger was in her eighties, she took the step that probably did more to change the lives of twentieth-century women than any other: She raised $150,000 for the research to develop a safe and effective birth control pill. In 1960, the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, although it would be a few more years before the pill would be widely available. It was probably not a coincidence that the wide availability of the pill coincided with the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The last of the Comstock laws were not struck down until 1972, when the Supreme Court decided a case called Eisenstadt v. Baird, finding that unmarried couples had the same rights to contraceptives as married couples.[iv]
One of the ironies of the laws surrounding reproduction in the early twentieth century was that while birth control and abortions were illegal, there were an abundance of laws allowing the government to forcibly sterilize citizens. In 1924, Virginia passed a law allowing for the sterilization of inmates in institutions supported by the state. Carrie Buck was considered feebleminded—a common word at the time for disorders of the mind. Carrie, who was committed to the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was the daughter of a “feebleminded” mother who lived in the same institution. Both Carrie and her mother were judged to be promiscuous on the grounds that both had children out of wedlock. When Carrie was eighteen years old, the state sought to have her sterilized on the theory that as long as she was capable of bearing children, she was a menace to society because she would likely bear similarly feebleminded children. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of Virginia to forcibly sterilize Carrie, thereby legalizing eugenics.[v]
Soon after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell, a dozen other states passed their own sterilization laws. The largest percentage of forced sterilizations was carried out in the South. Although all races and both genders were forcibly sterilized, it wasn’t long before the victims were primarily female. Initially, the sterilized girls were generally white, single, and sexually active, with a low IQ. Susan Cahn, a professor of women’s history, explains this by stating that sexually active poor white women procreating in large numbers threatened the social order in the South because of the embarrassment of sexually promiscuous whites failing to live up to stereotyped views of whites as morally superior and hence fit to be the ruling class. Promiscuous white girls inverted the usual ideas—prevalent everywhere but particularly so in the South—that white women embodied a special purity. Promiscuous was understood to mean having a baby without being married.
Authorities, in selecting those to be sterilized, often conflated feebleminded with promiscuity, and in fact, promiscuity was taken as proof of feeblemindedness. In the words of the doctor and administrator of a state-run institution for the feebleminded,
It is well known that feebleminded women and girls are very liable to become sources of unspeakable debauchery and licentiousness which pollutes . . . the minds and bodies of thoughtless youth at the very threshold of manhood.[vi]
The problem was how to understand promiscuous white girls who did not appear feebleminded. The theory arose that promiscuous white girls must have borderline intelligence—while not visibly feebleminded, they must have low intelligence because nothing else explained their behavior, and hence, they were good candidates for forced sterilization.
By the 1940s and 1950s there was a shift, particularly in the South, with authorities more often targeting African American females as candidates for forced sterilization. The reason for the shift was that for the first time, welfare became widely available to African Americans. In response, there arose the stereotype of the welfare mother, typically characterized as an African American woman deliberately cheating the state by bearing too many children. Ronald Reagan is credited with exploiting the pejorative phrase “welfare queens,” which he applied to women on welfare who—according to implication—were too lazy to work, choosing to have babies as a means to increase their government income.
In an effort to locate candidates for sterilization, state social workers entered black communities and attempted to learn the names of women who might “benefit” from sterilization. The black communities mounted a silent resistance, refusing to cooperate and provide names. So state governments disguised what they were up to. If a poor woman or pregnant teenager went to a public clinic for birth control, prenatal care, or an infection, a public health worker might evaluate her as a prospect for sterilization and refer her to the welfare department. Some authorities purposely misled individuals about the nature of the operation they were about to perform, saying that a medical condition required treatment. Many surgeons used events like childbirth or appendectomies to perform sterilizations—often without permission. One notorious obstetrician automatically and without permission sterilized a woman after her third child. Another—the only obstetrician in Aiken County, South Carolina, who accepted Medicaid—required welfare patients to agree to sterilization after childbirth or he would refuse them as patients. Many women were told they had to undergo sterilization or risk losing their jobs or welfare benefits.
When complaints about women being forced to undergo unwanted sterilizations became so numerous that the ACLU formed a division called the Reproductive Freedom Project. Eventually, this division handled issues of contraceptives and abortion as well.
The first abortion rights advocates were doctors—male doctors to be precise—because in the early part of the twentieth century, very few women were part of the medical profession. Those opposed to abortions on moral grounds accused doctors of being businessmen and profiting by performing abortions. In fact, doctors first began advocating for safe and legal abortions because they were alarmed by the large numbers of women who died each year as a result of botched illegal abortions.
As of 1970, illegal abortions were the leading cause of maternal death in the United States, whereas legal abortions performed by a medical professional were extremely safe. A frequent estimate was that badly-botched abortions resulted in about five thousand maternal deaths each year. Most were married with children left behind at their deaths. The reality was that a woman desperate for an abortion would obtain one, and if she could not find a safe and legal abortionist, she would put herself at risk with an unlicensed abortionist. In response to the public health menace of so many unsafe abortions, jurisdictions such as New York, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington, DC, repealed criminal sanctions for abortions, hence legalizing the procedure as long as it was performed by a licensed doctor. While there was much religious opposition to decriminalizing abortion, there were some religious leaders, including those in Catholic circles, such as Reverend Robert Drinan, dean of the Boston College Law School, who believed that abortion should be placed in the category of adultery—an act condemned by the Church as immoral but not criminally punished.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that many feminists took up the cause of abortion, repeating Margaret Sanger’s oft-quoted statement that no woman could call herself free unless she could control her own reproduction and decide when—and if—she became a mother. Ruth [Bader Ginsburg] was always open about her personal views on abortion, perhaps born of her experience in Sweden watching the Sherri Finkbine case unfold. It was clear to Ruth that a woman with enough money to buy a plane ticket would be able to obtain a safe and legal abortion. Criminalizing abortion, therefore, simply meant restricting the choices of lower-income women.
Critics accused Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of practicing eugenics because of the rationalization that abortion and contraceptive laws—as a practical matter—fell only on the poor. Many African Americans, in fact, were afraid that the pro-choice movement would amount to another assault on the reproductive organs of black women by forcing them to have abortions. From the time of slavery through to the forced sterilizations of the twentieth century, black women knew how it felt for the government to control their reproductive organs. Scholar Dorothy Roberts argues that every indignity a woman suffers today when she is denied control of her reproductive organs can be found in the lives of slaves, who were often forced to reproduce to produce more slaves and who endured the indignity of being treated as procreative vessels.[vii]Even the current debate pitting a mother’s welfare against that of her unborn child was also expressed during slavery as the understanding that a slave woman’s life was of less value than the babies she was expected to produce.
The philosophy of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood was that a woman should have complete control over her own reproductive organs without governmental interference, whether the woman wanted to prevent a pregnancy, end a pregnancy, or avoid forced sterilization. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it, “No one is for abortion. People are for a woman’s ability to decide what her life’s course will be.”[viii]
Another excerpt from my biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Did you know that Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought deciding Roe v. Wade under an implied right to privacy was a terrible idea? She thought the better handle would have been the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Before taking her place as a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg was a trailblazer in legal rights for women. As it turned out, she was representing an abortion case on the way to the Supreme Court when Roe v. Wade was decided.
She always thought things would have gone better had hers arrived first.
Her client, Susan Struck, was an Air Force Captian when she got pregnant. At the time, abortion was not only legal but was required if she wanted to remain in the Air Force. Struck was offered a choice: An abortion or her job. She was Catholic and didn’t want an abortion. Ginsburg took the case and argued on equal protection grounds that it should be a woman’s choice.
She filed her Supreme Court appeal in 1972 and regretted that her case didn’t arrive first because she thought the facts in her case were better than the facts in Roe v. Wade to make an equal protection argument. Specifically, she thought that an Air Force captain forced to choose between an abortion and her job would have been an ideal for opening a dialogue with the Supreme Court about a woman’s right to control her own reproductive organs.
Had her case arrived first, she would have asked for a ruling on narrow grounds instead of the sweeping decision issued in Roe v. Wade. She believed that the Court should move incrementally. Most Americans at the time were coming around to understanding pro-choice arguments, and she thought a narrow ruling would allow support for a woman’s choice to build. She worried that a ruling that was too sweeping and broad would trigger a backlash.
As we all know, the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, instead issued a broad sweeping decision under the implied right of privacy.
The ruling also triggered a backlash. During the decades since Roe v. Wade was decided, Republicans have cobbled together an electoral majority despite unpopular economic policies specifically by promising White Christian nationalists that they would appoint conservative justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Ginsburg believed that moving incrementally would have avoided creating the circumstance for such a backlash.
Finally, Ginsburg was really annoyed that the Supreme Court ruled the decision is between a woman and her doctor. Ginsburg found this patronizing to women (at the time, most doctors were men). She thought it should be the woman’s decision. Period.
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