Right now, thanks in part to extreme partisan gerrymanders, Republicans enjoy control of government in 23 states, allowing them to pass increasingly aggressive restrictions. The lawmakers who so eagerly pass these bills claim they are about protecting life, but if that were their true motive, they would also be striving to provide easier access to contraception — thus reducing the need for abortions in the first place — and expanding government assistance to families with babies and young children. Most don’t, of course.
If this is a dark time for reproductive freedom in America, it is also one of opportunity. Keep in mind that the anti-choice movement achieved as much as it did because it has had a clear enemy: Roe v. Wade and the reaffirmation of that ruling. In contrast, the abortion-rights movement has mostly played defense, believing that the courts would serve as a backstop. Now the tables are turning. Conservatives control the Supreme Court, and they will likely win many victories there in coming years. But they might soon tire of all that winning, for just as success breeds complacency, defeat begets urgency.
This moment is also an opportunity to recast the fight over abortion and reproductive rights generally. It should be centered on women’s equality and liberty, not on their privacy, the right on which the Roe decision was grounded. The problem with that rationale, which was conjured by a court consisting of nine older men, is not only that it does not appear explicitly in the Constitution, but also that it carries insinuations of secrecy and even shame. That’s a rickety foundation for such a fundamental right. It is far harder to refute calls for equality and liberty, as evidenced by the struggles and successes of the L.G.B.T.Q. movement.
That movement, which played out in roughly the same time period as the fight for abortion rights, is in large part about pride. Not unlike the anti-abortion movement, its earliest breakthroughs were not in courts of law but in the court of public opinion, which influences how the Supreme Court rules more than any justice wants to admit.
In the end, this is how reproductive freedom must be saved — through a concerted political campaign that harnesses public support with a message of openness and pride, and a focus on women’s equality and bodily autonomy. It needs to encompass not just the right to end a pregnancy but also the right not to get pregnant in the first place by having easy access to contraception. This shift may not happen tomorrow, but it won’t happen at all unless voters start coming out and choosing representatives who support reproductive freedom, and convert that support into policy.
The Supreme Court will rule on Dobbs, but that will not be the end of the story. This story, like most movements for greater equality throughout American history, is not ultimately about the judiciary’s interpretation of the Constitution. It is about the impact of large-scale social movements, and of regular people and their power to change the way we think about — and defend — our most fundamental rights.