Roe v Wade on the car mirror with a desert road in the background

Access Denied

The GOP Aren’t the Only Culprit in Overturning ‘Roe’

The Republicans have done everything in their power to erode our Constitutional right to a safe, legal abortion. But are the Democrats totally blameless?

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Abortion-rights supporters have known for a while that the end of Roe v. Wade was coming. Now, with the leaked Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it is confirmed—Roe is about to be overturned.

It’s difficult to convey how truly tragic and traumatic this will be for millions of folks, particularly Black women, brown women, and low-income women in states that will criminalize abortion. A mad rush from abortion funds and practical support organizations has already begun to try to solidify the structures that already exist to help these folks get the care they need out of state. Some will turn to self-managed abortion through medication abortion, as well. The next few months and years are going to be a learning curve, and there will be a lot of needless human suffering in the meantime.

But I believe we would be remiss if we didn’t take an honest look at how we got here, and how, in the face of what has seemed inevitable since Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in as a Justice on the Supreme Court, our leadership has so shamefully failed us.

There’s more than enough blame to go around for the current state of abortion access in this country. Obviously, the bulk of the blame goes to the Republican Party, which, for years, has done everything in its power to erode this most basic right, at state and federal levels. They’ve attracted anti-abortion terrorists, invited anti-abortion harassers to the White House, and spun wild conspiracy theories about abortion, including the absurd lie that “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts.” And, particularly over the past decade, they have passed restriction after restriction, forcing a third of abortion clinics to close and teeing up the case at the Supreme Court that is now poised to overturn Roe v. Wade

While Republicans rightfully deserve the majority of the blame for this crisis, Democrats are not blameless.

For years, the national Democratic Party defended abortion through “safe, legal, and rare,” a tremendously stigmatizing turn of phrase that renders abortion, the very thing supposedly being defended, as unworthy of that defense.

Why did it take until an abortion provider was shot and killed outside of his own clinic in March of 1993 for the federal government to finally take meaningful action against clinic blockades?

Why, a day after the leaked ruling, was Rep. James Clyburn campaigning in Texas for Henry Cuellar, the only remaining anti-choice Democrat in the House instead of his pro-abortion-rights challenger Jessica Cisneros? And why does Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also endorse him over Cisneros?

How did the Biden administration neither earnestly prepare for or even foresee the end of Roe v. Wade, something that has been clear as day since oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in December? 

How is it acceptable that, when asked about ending the filibuster to codify Roe v. Wade federally, Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from a solidly Democratic state, responded “I’m sorry. I’m out of energy. I’m out of time. I’m tired. Leave me alone”?

You know who else is tired and out of energy, Sen. Coons? Every abortion provider, funder, and clinic escort in America. But they don’t get a break. They don’t get to say, “I’m out of energy” or “I’m tired” when asked to show up for someone in need of an abortion. And, as someone elected to represent the people of your state, as someone who is supposed to belong to a party that believes in this most basic right, neither do you.

The last time the federal government passed any sort of supportive legislation on abortion rights was the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in 1994. Passed with bipartisan support in response to the murder of Dr. David Gunn, the first assassination of an abortion provider in American history, the bill made it a felony to block entrance to a reproductive health facility. Since then, ten more people have been murdered by anti-abortion terrorists, and there have been approximately 1,500 reported death threats and threats of harm against abortion providers. And yet, the federal government hasn’t passed a single piece of proactive, protective legislation for abortion providers and patients since then. That’s nearly 30 years of intransigence, all while conservative states created insidious restrictions like TRAP laws that forced clinics to close and rushed to ban abortion at ever-earlier stages of pregnancy. 

The Democrats have simultaneously controlled Congress and the White House more than once since the passage of the FACE Act, including from 2008 to 2010, and, most obviously, right now. And yet, they have done nothing to pass even a token acknowledgement, let alone meaningful legislation, to support the right to safe and legal abortion. That’s not to say that every Democrat has been meek on this issue. The full-throated embrace of abortion rights, including ending the Hyde Amendment, that we’ve seen from Democratic congresswomen like Barbara Lee, Cori Bush, and Pramila Jayapal, is the kind of energy that we need. 

But that’s recent. For much of the 1990s and the 2000s, even while the Republicans enacted a draconian ban on a common second-trimester abortion procedure and the Supreme Court, with two Bush appointees, upheld it, Democrats still couldn’t, as a party, embrace this issue. In 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was on the line, it was Democratic kowtowing to anti-abortion members of their own party that forbade health exchange plans from covering abortion. And now, as the country braces for the impending end of nationwide legal abortion, the Democrats in the Senate unanimously joined their Republican counterparts to increase police protection for Supreme Court Justices who, after having literal barricades put up around the Court, don’t like having to see peaceful protesters gathering outside their doors, complaining about the erosion of abortion rights.

This is unacceptable and shameful.

I understand how the filibuster works and I understand that, without Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin on board, no federal law protecting abortion rights is going anywhere in the Senate. But that’s part of what was so heartening in hearing Sen. Elizabeth Warren defiantly state, “I am angry!” Finally, someone in a position of power not only understands the stakes and shares in what can only be described as a normal reaction to losing this most basic right. It was liberating to share in her anger, to watch her unabashed rage directed at the five Supreme Court Justices who are set to overturn this landmark ruling and end bodily autonomy for half of the states in the union.

Expressing anger and dismay at the fact that Roe is about to be overturned is the bare minimum we should expect from Democrats in Congress. At this point, there is little they can do to protect abortion federally without nuking the filibuster, but they can at least start by embracing abortion as a matter of fundamental human dignity, and they can position the erosion of this right as the fitful end of the American democratic experiment that it is. 

The fall of Roe v. Wade is a national tragedy. It’s time our leaders start acting like it.

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