There is no way to regulate and control pregnancy without regulating and controlling people. States that have enacted abortion bans in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health have also considered the establishment of new regimes for the surveillance and criminalization of anyone who dares to circumvent the state’s dictates for the acceptable use of one’s body.
This is why the war on abortion rights is properly seen as a war on bodily autonomy and why the attack on reproductive freedom has moved hand in hand with a renewed attack on the gay, queer and transgender community. It’s all part of the same tapestry of reaction. And this reactionary impulse extends to the means of the anti-abortion political project as well as its ends.
The same lawmakers who want to rob their constituents of the right to bodily autonomy have also begun to treat democracy as an obstacle to avoid, not a process to respect. If the people stand in the way of ending abortion, then it’s the people who have to go.
We just witnessed, in fact, an attempt by anti-abortion lawmakers to do exactly that — to try to remove the public from the equation.
A majority of Ohio voters support the right to an abortion. The Ohio Legislature — gerrymandered into an seemingly perpetual Republican majority — does not. In many states, this would be the end of the story, but in Ohio voters have the power to act directly on the state constitution at the ballot box. With a simple majority, they can protect abortion rights from a Legislature that has no interest in honoring the views of most Ohioans on this particular issue.
Eager to pursue their unpopular agenda — and uninterested in trying to persuade Ohio voters of the wisdom of their views — Republican lawmakers tried to change the rules. Last week, in what its Republican sponsors hoped would be a low-turnout election, Ohioans voted on a ballot initiative that would have raised the threshold for change to the state constitution from a simple majority to a supermajority. They defeated the measure, clearing the path for a November vote on the future of abortion rights in the state.
In his opinion for the court in Dobbs, Justice Samuel Alito cast the decision to overturn Roe and Casey as a victory for democracy. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” he wrote. Reproductive rights, Alito continued, quoting Justice Antonin Scalia’s 1992 dissent in Casey, are “to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.”
Citizens can persuade each other, and they can vote. But our political system is not designed to turn the aggregate preferences of a majority into direct political power. (If that were true, neither Alito nor his Republican colleagues, save for Clarence Thomas, would be on the Supreme Court.) More important, Alito’s vision of voting and representation only works if that legislative majority, whoever it represents, is interested in fair play.
But as the Ohio example illustrates, the assault on bodily autonomy often includes, even rests on, an assault on other rights and privileges. In Idaho, to give another example, the No Public Funds for Abortion Act, which passed before Dobbs was decided, would punish state employees with the termination of employment, require restitution of public funds and possible prison time for counseling in favor of an abortion or referring someone to an abortion clinic. Other legislatures, such as those in Texas and South Carolina, have pushed similar restrictions on speech in pursuit of near total abortion bans in their states.
There’s something that feels inevitable in this anti-abortion turn toward political restriction. The attack on bodily autonomy is not general. It is aimed, specifically, at women. It subjects their bodies to state control and in the process degrades their citizenship. “Without the ability to decide whether and when to have children, women could not — in the way men took for granted — determine how they would live their lives, and how they would contribute to the society around them,” the dissenters in Dobbs wrote. For women to take their place as “full and equal citizens,” they “must have control over their reproductive decisions.”
In other words, the attack on bodily autonomy is an assault on both political equality and reproductive freedom. It creates a class of citizens whose status is lower than that of another group. And once you are in the business of degrading the citizenship of one group of people, it’s easy to extend that pattern of action to the citizenship of other groups of people. The authoritarian habits of mind that you cultivate diminishing one form of freedom may lead you to view other forms of freedom with equal contempt.
For now, the anti-abortion project is an assault on one form of freedom. But don’t be surprised if, to secure whatever victories it wins, it becomes an attack on all the others.
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