The recent leak of a Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe vs Wade decision, opening the door to legalising abortion in the USA, has sparked outrage among women globally. Naturally, The Democratic Party leadership’s eyes lit up with dollar signs in anticipation of the fundraising potential the leak presents. No single issue is more animating for Democrat and Democrat-aligned voters than abortion. Much like how sales of firearms experience an uptick in the aftermath of a major mass shooting, Democratic Party leaders have used abortion rights as a totem to rally around in spite of their consistent failure to secure them.
The leak itself is a major headache for Republicans, since it has occurred before a set of mid-term elections that they hope will secure them control of the House of Representatives and even the Senate. This outcome would absolutely sabotage whatever slivers of reform Biden intended to deliver. Taking a longer view, it is not immediately apparent what the benefit of repealing Roe vs Wade would be.
After all, Republicans have not explicitly made overturning Roe vs Wade a pillar of their strategy. They are fully aware that abortion can be made de facto illegal if not de jure. Several Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed draconian laws to severely limit or outright prohibit abortion. Furthermore, explicitly attacking Roe vs Wade burnishes their opposition with political ammunition. We on the left need to think a little deeper about the intentions behind this attack on not just the rights of women, but on democracy.
The map above should be the single most terrifying map of US politics, yet its significance is understated. To explain, of the 50 states in the union, only 17 state legislatures are under Democrat control, with 30 under Republican control. To provide some context, these states account for 307 electoral college votes, whereas Biden won 306 in the 2020 election. The contrast between Republican domination at the state level and at the presidential level tells us something about their ability to win electoral majorities, despite being in a clear popular minority. The latest US census predicts that the country will become a majority-minority country within the next 25 years. This phenomenal demographic inversion poses, potentially, an existential threat to Republican political hegemony.
In this context, overturning Roe vs Wade should be seen not as a pillar of Republican electoral strategy, but as part of a multi-pronged attack on the barely functional democracy that is claimed to exist in the USA. For multiple election cycles, Republicans have entrenched minority rule through egregious gerrymandering of congressional districts, legal impediments to suppress voting among the poor and minorities, and outright disenfranchisement through criminalising those same groups. It is not accidental that people with criminal records are being stripped of the right to vote, nor is the criminalisation of the poor and minorities through vicious policing tactics. Soon poor, minority women seeking an abortion will be criminalised, too.
The manoeuvre by Republicans to attack abortion is driven in equal parts by fear and brazen confidence. On one hand, their domination of politics at the state level, their generation-long seizure of the Supreme Court, and their prophesised victory within Congress makes them feel that the time is right to deliver on their promises to their Evangelical fundamentalist wing. Yet, a fear of demographic shifts that can erode their minoritarian stronghold compels them to seek new avenues to disenfranchise as many voters as possible, while they still can.
All this is synergistic with their response to calls to defund the police: to repeat mantras on “law & order”, boosting funding for police departments and prisons, passing laws to prevent “voter fraud”, or enhancing the power of the police, while criminalising a growing list of “crimes”. To call these machinations anything other than a modern version of Jim Crow is to deny the reality of the millions of ethnic minority citizens of the USA. The scale of the problems requires something akin to a new civil rights movement that is not specific to a single issue, but to an entire apparatus of control and subjugation.
Far too many people are falling into the trap of responding to the attack on Roe vs Wade by focusing solely on arguments around the “right to choose”. Liberals have succeeded in conditioning people into self-defeating myopia. In actuality, the attack on Roe vs Wade is an attack on black people organising against police violence, on the poor, on the right to vote.
People understand that abortions cannot be magicked out of existence, and that overturning Roe vs Wade will impact poor women and anyone who tries to help them. People know that poverty is concentrated among black people in particular and minorities in general. And yet political leaders seem unable to join the dots. Instead they offer pithy slogans, fundraising emails, calls to just vote in greater numbers no matter how many hours you have to wait in line or how many forms of ID you need to show at the polling booth. As animating as abortion rights are, it is simply delusional to expect to build an overwhelming electoral coalition to merely defend an emaciated status quo around abortion.
Joe Biden has refused to countenance decriminalising marijuana; he has vocally supported police departments and treated the demands of Black Lives Matter activists with contempt. Neither he nor his coterie of sycophants has passed any legislation to secure voting rights. The PRO Act is dead in the water and neither is there any prospect of the most milquetoast economically redistributive policies on the horizon. The Democrats can scream themselves hoarse about a woman’s right to choose but until they mobilise popular forces around a full suite of interlocking issues, they will fail once again.
Of course, we on the left know exactly why the Democrats love to feign helplessness. It is the left that must join the dots between poverty, voting rights, police violence and criminalisation, and the attack on Roe vs Wade. I write these words frantically as a means to start this process. Every crisis is either an opportunity to despair in nihilism or to organise with optimism. We must craft a narrative that goes beyond issues of bodily autonomy. Just as attacking abortion is a conduit for Republicans seeking to entrench minority rule and ruling class interests, the left has to mount a defense of the working class and democracy through the defense of the right to safe, legal, and unencumbered abortion.