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Supreme Court decision is not what democracy looks like

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MAY 31, 2022

A political system where nine unelected lawyers have more power over policy than 70% of the population is not what I would call a democracy. But that is the world we could be living in by the end of this summer. The U.S. Supreme Court, or SCOTUS, seems set to overturn abortion rights nationwide, even though the majority of people in the U.S. support Roe v. Wade — and have for years.

But this anti-democratic ruling should not be surprising; abortion rights in the U.S. have been under attack for years. For decades, conservative state governments have passed a myriad of laws and exploited legal loopholes in an effort to restrict and close down abortion clinics. Today, almost 90% of counties in the U.S. do not have a single abortion clinic. In Alabama, there are only three abortion clinics left in the whole state; in South Dakota, abortion access was cut off for seven months during the pandemic because no out-of-state doctors could travel into the state to perform abortions. Other states have passed laws prohibiting Medicaid coverage of abortion, or mandating a waiting period before getting an abortion. In some states, counseling is mandated for people who are about to undergo abortions — counseling that reports false narratives about the physical and mental health effects of the procedure.

Even before this legal onslaught against abortion clinics ramped up, abortion rights in practice were already very limited. How many people can take time off from work in order to go to an abortion clinic? How many of the 28 million people in the U.S. without health care in the U.S. can afford an abortion, even if they are able to reach a clinic? How many Americans face social scrutiny from friends or family for getting an abortion because of the perverse culture of shame we have constructed around a simple medical procedure?

What makes this legislative assault on abortion rights even more terrifying is that it is not just abortion rights that are under attack. Across the country, courts and state legislatures are rolling back and restricting other human rights one by one. In addition to limiting reproductive rights, a dozen states have passed or are considering introducing bills prohibiting the teaching of gender and sexuality. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida is the most prominent among these proposals and has created a climate of fear among LGBTQ+ teachers and students — some teachers have even been fired or forced to resign simply for discussing their sexuality. Trans youth and student athletes are facing bans on access to gender affirming surgery and participation in school sports. Seventeen states have passed laws against “critical race theory” curriculum, severely inhibiting discussions on the history of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. These laws represent the cold wave of the suppression of human rights, free speech and free enquiry that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society.

The Supreme Court has led the way in these assaults. In 2013, it struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which put the burden of proof on state and local government officials to show that any changes made to voting laws were not discriminatory. The result has been a spate of seemingly “colorblind” voting laws that discriminate against voters of color by using tactics such as requiring state IDs in order to vote and restricting same-day voter registration.

The attack on abortion rights represents just one aspect of the anti-democratic legislation sweeping the country. But the elimination of abortion rights is not inevitable — and neither is the restriction of our civil rights, voting rights and free speech. But fighting back against these attacks will require a self-organizing mass movement in the streets. It is this activity in the streets — not the election of progressive politicians or Democrats — that has historically been the way that true social justice has been won at all. The right to abortion, on demand, with no exceptions and no apologies, was earned because of the mass struggle of the women’s liberation movement. Jenny Brown, an activist in National Women’s Liberation, describes in her book “Without Apology” how the women’s movement only began to win significant victories for abortion rights, including Roe v. Wade, as they grew into a confrontational mass movement. Previous attempts to slowly expand abortion rights through lobbying politicians or electing pro-choice candidates never made a dent in the fight for abortion; grassroots organizing in the streets managed to win nationwide abortion rights in a matter of years.    

A militant mass movement capable of reversing these reactionary laws must also target its heart: an anti-democratic political system based on defending the property of rich capitalists. As long as we live in a capitalist society where the interests of the majority are ignored, where the wealthy have control over the economy and the political system, and where basic human rights can be given and taken on the whims of nine geriatric judges, we will continue to face reactionary attacks on our rights. The fight for abortion rights has been and must be a mass struggle for a true democracy. That struggle begins with us — organizing, protesting and struggling for our rights, right now, wherever we are.

Aidan Byrne-Sarno is a rising senior and member of Speak Out Now at UC Berkeley.
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MAY 31, 2022