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‘Do something!’ A looming abortion decision has overturned America’s political landscape


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‘Do something!’ A looming abortion decision has overturned America’s political landscape

WASHINGTON—“I’m scared as a woman. I’m scared as someone who believes in the Constitution,” a Georgetown University student named Renee said, sitting in front of the U.S. Supreme Court late Monday night, holding a sign reading “Abortion is a civil right.”

Another woman walking towards the court told me what is happening under this Supreme Court is more restrictive to women than the regime Muslim women like her mother lived under in the Middle East in past decades. “ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is reality here,” she said. “If they’ll take away a woman’s rights over her own body, what else will they do?”

These women, and thousands of others who demonstrated in front of the court building Monday night and through the day Tuesday, felt shocked, angry, and afraid. A leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that has guaranteed the right to an abortion in the U.S. for 50 years would also, they felt, overturn their lives, taking away their agency over their own bodies.

The leaked opinion has overturned still more than that: it may have upended the entire American political landscape in less than 24 hours. As protesters continued to gather outside of the court building, Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that the unprecedented leak was of a legitimate — though far from final — document and vowed to find the culprit. Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, vowed to codify abortion rights in federal legislation, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to bring the issue of a federal law guaranteeing those rights to a vote within months. Meanwhile, the looming decision threatened to rewrite the electoral calculations in this year’s midterm congressional elections.

Even that level of political and legal tumult was, for many advocates of abortion choice, overshadowed by the suddenly looming probability that within months — if not weeks — abortion is likely to be made unavailable in as many as half the states in the country.

The draft decision written by Samuel Alito, which is reported to have the tentative support of four other justices on the court — the required majority among the nine members — is an unequivocal demolition of the Roe v. Wade precedent, calling it “egregiously wrong from the start,” and leaving laws governing abortion entirely at the discretion of the states.

“Although the document described in yesterday’s reports is authentic, it does not represent a decision by the court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case,” Roberts noted in a written statement. A majority of the justices could still decide to vote another way, or the specifics of the decision’s parameters could change before it is released before the end of this Supreme Court session in June or July.

The effects of the decision being formalized would be severe, immediate and far-reaching: approximately 22 states have total or near-total abortion bans ready to become law immediately or soon after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Only 11 states have already passed laws protecting abortion rights.

One of the chants at the demonstrations outside of the court was, “Democrats, do something!” And many Democrats vowed they would try, though it is hard to know if they would succeed.

“It will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday reacting to the draft opinion. “And it will fall on voters to elect more pro-choice officials this November.”

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The House of Representatives has already passed a bill meant to protect abortion rights across the country, but it has lain dormant in the evenly divided Senate. High-profile progressive senators including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren called for immediate action, and Schumer promised in a speech to the chamber Tuesday to bring the matter to a vote soon. “We will vote to protect a woman’s right to choose and every American is going to see which side every senator stands,” Schumer said.

He may have been emphasizing the visibility of each senator’s vote for the same reason Biden emphasized the need to elect pro-choice legislators in the November midterm congressional elections: because it appears unlikely the Democrats — even holding the tiebreaking senate vote of the vice-president — have the muscle to pass the bill.

Which leads to the question of whether abortion could become a ballot-box issue in November.

“My prediction is women will go to vote in numbers we have never seen before because we have never seen, in our lifetimes, such an overturning of major precedent such as this,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said Tuesday in an interview on CBS News. She wasn’t alone in suggesting that generations of Americans who have grown up in a world where abortion rights were a given might be motivated to vote by the shock of seeing those rights taken away. Polls show that only about 20 per cent of Americans support a full repeal of Roe v. Wade.

For women like Renee, who are afraid — and demanding action from Democrats — the question seeing the all-hands-on-deck reaction from elected officials now might be, what took you so long?

Though this leaked decision is a shock, perhaps the biggest surprise is its timing. The writing has appeared to be on the wall for Roe v. Wade since before the start of Biden’s term in office.

In 2020, Donald Trump completed a decades-long, co-ordinated conservative project to pack the courts with anti-abortion justices explicitly aimed at overturning the legal precedent. Ever since a 6-3 conservative majority was installed at the end of Trump’s term, a decision like this has seemed inevitable. When the court heard the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case (the source of the leaked decision) earlier this year, the inevitable became imminent.

Though the protest was outside of the Supreme Court, the message may be aimed more directly at those who sit in the chairs of the other branches of government.

“This is, in America, this is what you do. You stand up, you exercise your free speech rights when you disagree. I’ve got to hope this means something,” Renee said. She suggested that state and federal legislatures need to step up. “While the court is not beholden to public opinion, certainly the three branches of government work cohesively to govern the people. And so this is the voice of the people.”

Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: ekeenan@thestar.ca

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