I am acquainted with several people (and know of many, many more) who were troubled by Donald Trump’s lousy character and shady business dealings yet still voted for him. The basic rationale seems to have been: “Sure, Trump is awful. Clinton’s awful too. The difference is that Trump will appoint Supreme Court justices who appose abortion.” The vote in the 2016 election was close enough to imagine that these people may have tipped the balance.
And now Trump is rewarding such choices. First, he got the rigid right-winger Neil Gorsuch on the Court to replace rigid right-winger Antonin Scalia (some analysts have suggested that Gorsuch is even more extreme than Scalia in his embrace of a corporatist agenda, hard as that may be to imagine). Now, we are likely just days away from Brett Kavanaugh (a long time Republican Party operative) joining four other rigid right-wingers to form what will likely be a long-term Supreme Court majority.
It’s hard to say precisely howthis new unequivocally “anti-abortion” majority will act to undermine abortion rights. They may simply overturn Row vs. Wade and allow whatever states choose to to make abortion in all situations illegal. However, I have read commentators who suggest that, realizing such a direct move would energize the pro-choice forces, the Court may move in a more piecemeal direction. They may make decisions that continue to chip away at abortion rights until, while technically legal, abortions become virtually impossible to obtain in most of the country.
A counter-productive strategy
Ironically, though, I believe that this strategy will backfire on those who, out of genuinely humanitarian motivations, desire a sharp reduction (if not complete elimination) of abortion in this country. Basically, in helping to elect Trump and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, “pro-lifers” have actually put into power forces that are profoundly anti-life (militarist, anti-environment, ruthlessly pro-corporate, pro-mass incarceration, etc.). The “success” of getting an iron-clad “pro-life” majority in the Supreme Court will not only lead to heightened misery for non-wealthy Americans, but ironically likely will do little, if anything, to eliminate abortion.
I believe that the abortion debate is incredibly complex with strong feelings and important truths being expressed across the spectrum. It won’t be resolved in my lifetime.
So, let’s say that Kavanaugh will be confirmed (or, if not, we may expect that some other equally “anti-abortion” person will be). What follows will be more and more legal barriers against abortion, with the Supreme Court as the final arbiter with its “anti-abortion” majority in place perhaps for decades.
Will legal changes actually end abortion?
Yet, giving the opponents of abortion all they want in making abortion illegal certainly will notend abortion in this country. It may not even reduce the abortion rate (though it will certainly increase the rate of illegal abortions and the attendant rate of deaths due to unsafe abortions). Many countries that outlaw abortion completely have some of the highest abortion rates in the world (e.g., El Salvador’s rate of abortion is around 30 per 1,000 women aged 15-44)—and countries with the lowest abortion rates have legalized abortion (e.g., Switzerland, where abortion is available with no restrictions as to the reason for abortion, has the lowest abortion rate in the world, around 5 per 1,000). Obviously, there are other issues that drive the abortion rate more than legality.
So, people who truly want to reduce (and even ultimately end) abortion shouldbe asking how Kavanaugh’s likely positions on a wide range of issues would impact the one issue that matters the most in relation to abortion. That one issue is the prevalence of unwantedpregnancies. It seems like a simple point—the reason anyone has an abortion is that they don’t want to be pregnant. If someone doesn’t want to be pregnant bad enough, making abortion illegal will not stop them. And if someone doesn’t get pregnant when they don’t want to, they will not get an abortion.
So, are the policies that Republicans such as Kavanaugh support likely to decrease the cases of unwanted pregnancies? In a word, no. They are almost sure to increase the number of unwanted pregnancies (e.g., reducing funding for Planned Parenthood and in other ways limiting access to birth control; limiting access to sex education; reducing the safety net including programs that provide prenatal care, food stamps, and other social services; heightening the shame associated with unmarried pregnancies).
In general, the Republicans (and remember that Kavanaugh has been a loyal Republican operative for a long time) are pushing a political agenda that moves the U.S. more toward El Salvador (with an ever greater divide between rich and poor and a hollowed out middle class; fewer limits to corporate and police power; stricter legal barriers to access to abortion; an ever-shrinking safety net—not to mention ever-growing militarization and democratic practices growing ever-weaker) and away from Switzerland (with its robust safety net and vital democracy).