Abortion and the decimation of American democracy

Recent anti-abortion measures in the US are a symptom of a dangerous malady which has afflicted its democracy for years.

Abortion protests
The Texas Handmaids activist group joins a protest against abortion restrictions at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas on May 21, 2019 [AP Photo/Eric Gay]

On May 14, the US state of Alabama passed new draconian legislation banning abortion in almost all cases. Less than 10 days later, Missouri followed suit with its own restrictive abortion measure.

These laws come on the heels of similar legislative initiatives in the states of Georgia, Mississippi and Ohio and of course, reflect the misogyny and the relentless efforts of the Trump administration to undermine women’s reproductive rights. But they are also symptomatic of a much bigger and more sinister process – the ongoing assault on American democracy which began even before Donald Trump made it to the White House.

Not unlike France, where the right of Muslim women to wear the veil has become a point of endless contention, in the United States, women’s bodies have also become a battleground where the most significant political struggles of our time are being fought. Indeed, the stakes have never been higher. 

Trump’s campaign to curtail women’s rights began immediately after he took office with the implementation of the Global Gag rule, which cut federal funding for NGOs in foreign countries which provide abortion services, advocate for the legalisation of abortion or even mention abortion. It has continued unabated with repeated attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides accessible reproductive healthcare in the US, and the successful nomination of not one but two “pro-life” (anti-abortion rights) Supreme Court Justices

It has also emboldened pro-life politicians to wage war on women’s constitutional right to legal access to abortion, enshrined in the 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe v Wade. There are currently dozens of anti-abortion bills being introduced in state legislatures across the country. 

While they will no doubt be challenged ferociously in courts, it is also increasingly likely that one of these cases will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, which today has a clear anti-abortion majority.

Yet, despite the ostensible suddenness of these legal measures and the widespread media attention they have received, the slow and steady erosion of women’s reproductive rights has been occurring for many years, often under the media radar. 

For instance, in recent years, Republican legislators managed to push bills to restrict abortion by mandating waiting periods for patients. Anti-abortion activists in states like Kentucky and Texas have also worked tirelessly to shut down health clinics where abortions are performed, lobbying politicians to support legislation that would require clinics to obtain so-called transfer agreements” with a hospital or ambulance service.

In 2016, during the Obama administration, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law requiring such transfer agreements. Although the ruling lifted some pressure off of abortion clinics, the threat on women’s reproductive rights never really went away in Texas or elsewhere.

Few at the time realised how serious it was. After all, during the Obama era, the general perception was that the country was moving towards greater gender equality and that certain basic constitutional rights could not be taken away, despite repeated attempts by the Tea Party and other Christian fundamentalists. 

Indeed, during President Barack Obama’s tenure, an atmosphere of liberal tolerance prevailed, particularly towards women and the LGBTQ community. Think of the historic Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality and the revocation of the ban on trans people in the military.

There was a pervasive sense that democratic institutions and liberal laws were robust and would protect our rights. As a result, there was little mass mobilisation to counter these local and targeted campaigns against reproductive rights. 

But here is the catch. While Obama advanced a certain type of identity politics that secured the rights of specific groups, his policies simultaneously facilitated predatory financial capitalism that thrived precisely by eating away at the fabric of democratic life.

As political theorist Nancy Fraser has suggested, during the Obama era “progressive neoliberalism” reigned. His administration contributed to the erosion of democratic institutions by allowing corporate wealth and power to go virtually unchecked. It was Obama, after all, who chose to ignore Wall Street crimes after the 2008 financial crash.

The ground was, therefore, ripe for Trump’s ensuing onslaught. He has not only continued the neoliberal vision of his predecessor but has also stripped away all remnants of tolerance and progressive politics in the name of hyper-nationalism and a thinly disguised white supremacist agenda.

In parallel to neoliberalism’s evisceration of democratic processes and the nullification of regulations that took years to impose, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism have been normalised at the highest levels.

The current state initiatives to undermine women’s constitutional rights must, therefore, be seen as a concrete manifestation of the resurgence of an invigorated politics of hate, which democratic structures severely weakened by aggressive neoliberalism have not been able to stand up to.

This is not to say that there has been no resistance: the increase in mass feminist activism since Trump’s inauguration alongside the election of a historic number of women – and women of colour – to the US Congress are indications that there is a pushback. But if we are to stop this attack on our bodies and on democracy itself, we need to intensify the struggle exponentially. 

The new abortion laws should serve as a true wake-up call. Legal challenges are not enough. If we do not fight back relentlessly by organising mass resistance, we may well find ourselves in the dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where women’s rights are abolished and women are forced into reproductive servitude. 

We simply cannot go on with our everyday lives assuming that it will be all right in the end. Too many red lines have already been crossed, and too much is at stake. We need to wage a struggle on different levels: from getting involved in Supermajority, a new political organisation that aims to mobilise women across race, class and generation, through taking action on climate change by supporting the Extinction Rebellion, to ensuring that the Green New Deal is enacted without compromise.

Sitting on the fence is simply no longer an option. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.