Friday, October 2, 2020
Joan Williams, The Case for Accepting Defeat on Roe
The argument that the left has already lost the abortion fight reflects the fact that there’s no abortion clinic in 90 percent of American counties. This is the result of the highly successful death-by-a-thousand-cuts anti-abortion strategy, which has piled on restriction after restriction to make abortion inaccessible to as many American women as possible.
Chief Justice John Roberts’s concurring opinion this summer in June Medical Services v. Russo — the one that mattered — was hailed as a surprise victory for abortion rights, but not by me. Justice Roberts refused to uphold Louisiana restrictions virtually identical to those the court struck down as unconstitutional just four years earlier, but clearly stated that his reluctance was because of his respect for precedent. Anyone with their eyes open could see the justice signaling to abortion opponents to continue the process of eroding Roe v. Wade’s nigh-absolute protection of access to abortion during the first trimester by inventing new types of restrictions, which they have been remarkably creative in doing.
If Judge Amy Coney Barrett becomes the next Supreme Court justice, Justice Roberts’s vote will be irrelevant, anyway. And if things already looked pretty grim, now they look much worse: Up to 21 states have passed laws banning or limiting abortions in ways that are currently unconstitutional. Many will go into effect immediately if Roe is fully overturned.So what should we do now? Often forgotten is that R.B.G. herself had decided that Roe was a mistake. In 1992, she gave a lecture musing that the country might be better off if the Supreme Court had written a narrower decision and opened up a “dialogue” with state legislatures, which were trending “toward liberalization of abortion statutes” (to quote the Roe court). Roe “halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and thereby, I believe, prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue,” Justice Ginsburg argued. In the process, “a well-organized and vocal right-to-life movement rallied and succeeded, for a considerable time, in turning the legislative tide in the opposite direction.”
What Ginsburg called Roe’s “divisiveness” was instrumental in the rise of the American right, which was flailing until Phyllis Schlafly discovered the galvanizing force of opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly wrote the culture wars playbook that created the odd coupling of the country-club business elite with evangelicals and blue-collar whites. In exchange for business-friendly policies like tax cuts and deregulation, Republicans now allow these groups to control their agenda on religion and abortion. It’s hard to remember now but this was not inevitable: abortion was not always seen as the partisan issue it is today, nor did evangelicals uniformly oppose abortion.
Whether or not R.B.G.’s assessment of Roe was correct, the best tribute we can pay to her is to do what she suggests: open up the kind of dialogue that occurred in Ireland, where young people knocked on grannies’ doors and persuaded them to vote to legalize abortion, which — much to the distress of the Catholic Church — they did. (At the same time, activists galvanized to ensure that, in the absence of a referendum, women throughout the country would have access to and knowledge about medication abortions.)
I don’t want Roe to be overturned, but if that happens, it could bring political opportunity. The emotional heat that surrounds abortion as an issue manages to obscure that the attitudes driving opposition to abortion actually reveal some surprising common ground with progressives on economic issues.